Regardless of how the diplomatic links may evolve over time, Iran and Pakistan have many reasons to be friendly towards one another. And the reasons for that are so much connected to each nation’s interests that it should help overcome any problem between the two countries.
Tehran and Islamabad have fierce competitors/enemies in their respective regional environments. For Iran it is very clear that Saudi Arabia is now a fierce competitor: Riyadh is concerned over Iran’s possibility to rise to the point of becoming the main regional power in the Middle East, or at least a force able to counter any policy deemed negative from an Iranian point of view. On important issues like the Syrian war, stability in Iraq, civil war in Yemen, the nuclear question in Iran, even on an economic front related to oil prices, Saudis and Iranians strongly oppose one another. The only country in the region as afraid as Saudi Arabia by Iranian ambitions is Israel. Israelis and Saudis will continue to oppose Iranians in the years to come, as long as Iran is an independent nation eager to be a true regional power, influential in the Middle East. Moreover, Turkey and some Arab nations linked to Saudi Arabia do not see Iran as a possible partner. It means that on its Western flank, the Persian nation cannot count on friendly relationships to secure its borders. Its only true friends, Iraq and Syria, are very weak states with problems of their own. In such a situation, it is very important for Tehran to secure its other borders. A good relationship with Pakistan is key to secure its Eastern flank.
As for Pakistan, it has only two real threats for its national security: India and Afghanistan. From India the direct threat is a classic one, coming from an unfriendly state. Afghanistan is a more complex issue; even if some Afghan official structures can be used for anti-Pakistan activities, the main problem coming from the north is the fact that Afghanistan is a very weak state. Hence anti-Pakistan terrorist groups like TTP can find in Afghanistan a safe haven, and radical elements, as well as criminal groups, can use the Afghan chaos to their advantage (most importantly by financing themselves, thanks to drug trafficking). The borders with India and Afghanistan are problematic, to say the least: Kabul refuses to recognize the “Durand Line”, whichever regime is in charge (the Taliban included); and as long as there is no real compromise on Kashmir, Pakistan’s “Alsace-Lorraine”, tensions in India-Pakistan will remain high.
In comparison, there is no such level of tension between Islamabad and Tehran. Of course, there are some issues regarding Baloch separatists/terrorists. But in fact, Pakistan and Iran need to help each other to make sure their Baloch territories are secure, and to oppose sectarian tensions in both countries. The Iranian Baloch separatist and terrorist group, Jundallah, which was very active against Iran security forces in Sistan-Baluchestan during the second half of the decade 2000 has been decapitated. There are some tensions between Pakistanis and Iranians at the border, sometimes. Both sides cannot hermetically close a 900-km border, hence terrorists do between Iran and Pakistan what they do between Afghanistan and Pakistan: switching from one country to the other in order to strike and avoid capture. Peace in the Baloch areas in Pakistan and Iran will continue to need a solid counter-terrorism cooperation between the two countries.
Peace in Afghanistan can only be possible if Iran and Pakistan work together. The U.S. has been unable to win the peace in this country even after 14 years of presence. It is linked, in no small part, to the fact that it refused to accept this country’s geography. Afghanistan is not an island, what happens there is strongly linked to its regional environment. In particular Pakistan and Iran are the two countries that have the strongest historical, cultural, economic and human links with Kabul. But for ideological reasons the W. Bush administration refused to cooperate with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Despite this, American security services were able to build a link with the Northern Alliance. After the disastrous speech about “Axis of Evil” (2002), pinpointing Iran as an enemy, the only logical move for the U.S. should have been to treat Pakistan as the very important ally it was, in order to best deal with the Afghan issue. Indeed, if Iran has strong influence in few parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan has had strong links with the Pashtun-dominated areas. But it seems that power-brokers in D.C. thought that after 9/11, Pakistan would forget its own particular security concerns and geopolitical interests in the name of the American “War on Terror”. It explains in a nutshell why has there been friction between Americans and Pakistanis since 2002. And now, because of the nature of U.S. ideological approach to the Afghan conflict, the Afghan regional environment is still in danger of a spillover of the Afghan problems. Iran and Pakistan have both been working hard to make sure their reach in Afghanistan goes beyond their usual areas of influence. They both accepted the fact that peace will be possible only by negotiation and compromise with the Taliban. They both need more stability in Afghanistan in order to make sure the Chinese economic projects towards its west become reality, as it will mean trade opportunities for the whole region. Hence, in the coming years, if Tehran and Islamabad focus on their own self-interest, they will have a growing relationship, partly based on common interests in Afghanistan, knowing only they together can bring peace to this difficult neighbour.
Could Particular Obstacles Hurt the Iran-Pakistan Relationship?
Hence from what one can see, Iran and Pakistan could easily have a good relationship, in the name of their respective self-interests. Does it mean that friendship will always dominate the bilateral relationship or that said relationship will necessarily be easy to manage? Of course not:
• The relationship between Iran and India, or between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia or the U.S., could have a negative impact on the links between Iran and Pakistan.
• There is a risk that terrorists, or some external actors, might try to push the two countries to oppose each other.
• There are, broadly speaking, possibilities of misunderstandings that could bring tensions. It is not uncommon in a regional environment where security-related and geopolitical tensions are so numerous.
Problems related to misunderstandings are real. In the two countries, some policy-makers and analysts might have more prejudices than knowledge about their nation’s neighbour. It is actually striking to see that same journalists and academics in the two countries have been influenced by the American approach towards their countries. Hence some Iranian experts might copy their American colleagues on the Afghan issue, and some Pakistani academics might see the Iranian regime as “irrational”, an approach that comes straight from some influential American think tanks and media. Besides, some local sectarian actors might want to use those prejudices to push the two countries to oppose each other. Such risks will have to be taken into account without being exaggerated. It is common to hear a rather positive analysis about Iran from experts in Pakistan. And there is a general understanding in Iran that to picture Islamabad as an enemy would not only be wrong but it would be counterproductive for Iran’s national interests.
But what about Pakistan’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, Iran’s arch competitor in the Middle East? Or Iran’s friendship with India, the main security problem for Pakistan? Here a careful analysis can help us not to fall into a Manichean vision of international relations.
Indeed, Pakistan and Saudia have a strong historical relationship. Riyadh has opposed the secession of East Pakistan becoming Bangladesh in 1971 and it was an important ally against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980. It has been financially generous more than once, and Pakistan Army has been a protective force for the Kingdom at least since 1982, when a military protocol was signed between the two countries. A former Pakistani Ambassador to the Kingdom, Naeem Khan, once famously said that for the Pakistani leadership, such strong links make Saudi security a personal matter for his country. But it does not mean that Saudi Arabia controls the Pakistani military or civilian elite. A clear proof of that was when Pakistan refused to be part of the Saudi war on Yemen.
Hence, it would be a caricature to imagine a Riyadh-Islamabad “axis” against Iran. And it would be equally wrong to imagine a New Delhi-Tehran alliance against Pakistan. India and Iran have a rather friendly relationship, but it is a pragmatic one: the Indians are interested in Iran’s oil and gas, the Iranians are interested in India as a market. But none of them want an alliance. Indeed, for India, one of the most important countries in the Middle East is, in fact, Saudi Arabia. Like Pakistan, it wants to find a diplomatic equilibrium between the two Middle Eastern countries. And it is common sense for the Indians to think this way: Saudi Arabia alone is one-fifth of this country’s oil imports, it is its major supplier in crude oil. In the name of realpolitik, besides Saudi Arabia, the other important partner for the Indians in the Middle East is Israel, Iran’s arch enemy. Last, but not least, India did not hesitate to push aside its traditional “friendship” with Iran when it was pressured by the U.S. to do so, under the W. Bush administration in particular. Even under Obama, the Indians made clear which friendship they valued the most: it explains why they abandoned the idea to be linked to Iran’s gas, thanks to a “Peace Pipeline” between Iran, Pakistan and India, in 2009. The American-Indian bilateral relationship is much more important to New Delhi than any supposed friendship with the Islamic Republic of Iran. But the latter also showed that it would not sacrifice its relationship with Pakistan or with China in the name of an alliance that actually does not exist.
Actually the only real obstacle for a positive analysis is the use by a third actor, at the border between Iran and Pakistan, of tensions that might arise. From what one can say reading open sources, it appears that the terrorist/separatists from Sistan-Baluchestan have been no more than a few hundreds. And thanks to Pakistan’s help to track down their leadership, they have lost the unity they got for a while being under the group called Jundallah. Hence they do know that they cannot break Tehran’s control on Iranian Baluch lands by guerilla tactics or terrorism. But if they can make the Iranian military at the border tense enough by attacking them and then retreating inside Pakistani territory, they would get a chance to push the two countries to oppose each other, may be violently. And indeed, there has been some clashes at the Iran-Pakistan borders, and Pakistani Baloch citizens complained of Iranian bombing and intrusion. The same way Iran regularly asks Pakistan for more action at the border to stop terrorists to hide in Pakistan after striking in Sistan-Baluchestan. But one can only notice that even during strong tensions, the two countries have been able to stay rational and avoid a spiral of violence. Security-related cooperation at the border seems to have grown strongly over the last two years, despite one-off issues. And actually very recently, the fear of the threat caused by Daesh has pushed the two countries to strengthen their relationship.
Of course, Iran and Pakistan need to be careful of the fact that it is not only the non-state actors who can try to create problems at their common border. There have been rumors coming from Iran, that the USA helped Jundallah in the past. There is no proof of this, and even if it was during the W. Bush administration, such a support would have been a short-sighted move as the so called jihadist group was weak and strongly connected to criminal elements running the regional drug smuggling. But it appears that there are such rumors for a reason: as explained in the very serious Foreign Policy journal, in the article “False Flag” (January 13, 2012), the “CIA agents” who tried to recruit the Jundullah to support destabilization inside Iran were in fact Mossad agents. Israel and Iran are strongly opposed to each other, so the analysis and the information given in this important article were not totally news. But it confirmed the fear that a third state would not hesitate to use destructive forces at Iran-Pakistan border for information or geopolitical gain. Even if little information emerged on Iran’s recent answer about RAW’s activity in Chabahar, also in Sistan-Baluchestan, the very fact that there was an answer to Islamabad by Tehran, gives at least the impression that the Iranians and the Pakistanis see eye-to-eye on this subject. If the Iranians had not believed the Pakistani point of view on the Indian services in Sistan-Baluchestan, it would have been easy to leak such information to the local or international media. It is a testimony of Iran-Pakistan strong relationship that despite what is known by Iran and Pakistan of RAW’s and Mossad’s activities, the two countries have chosen dialogue and cooperation rather than trading accusations. It is a symbol of diplomatic maturity that augurs well for the future.
Hence it appears that naturally, Iran and Pakistan could have a good, friendly relationship. But it is said that it takes two to tango. It means that nothing can happen without the will of the two entities make it work. The Pak-Iran relationship is no exception. It is in their own interest, actually, to build stronger links, may be to the point of a strategic relationship. But the fact that there is much to gain for those two neighbours to be friendly with each other does not mean there is no need for any particular effort. Here the said effort would be, in fact, particularly simple: there is a need of political will from the leaderships of the two countries. The idea of political will includes being strong enough to avoid the lobbying of a third party who would benefit from tensions between Iran and Pakistan. If the leaderships in Islamabad and Tehran are able to achieve to build at least a relationship based on limited trust and efficient cooperation, it would mean economic and security-related gains of great importance for those two important nations. And a better defence of national interests.
The writer is Editing Director of CAPE (Center for the Analysis of Foreign Policy). He is also a non-resident Scholar for IPRI (Islamabad Policy Research Institute). He is a specialist on geopolitical/security-related issues in Central Asia and South-West Asia (Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan).
Email: [email protected]
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