The two-day visit to Pakistan by Iranian President Dr Hassan Rouhani was very significant because of the emerging geopolitical situation in the region. Opportunities have opened up because of the removal of sanctions on Iran, as a result of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action between Iran and the P5+1 countries and recalibrating relations between the two countries to their mutual advantage, which have not been as enviable as one would have desired them to be.
Iran was the first country to recognise Pakistan after its independence. The two countries were members of Cento. Along with Turkey, they formed the RCD, which later became a larger group known as the ECO. The warmth and depth of ties between the two countries can be judged by the fact that during the 1965 war with India, Iran sided with Pakistan. It also helped quash the insurgency in Balochistan.
After the events of 1979, including the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union and the revolution in Iran, the situation drastically changed in the region, as well as within Pakistan, which also affected relations between the two countries. Although Iran opposed the Soviet invasion and joined hands with Pakistan to support the Afghan jihad, it always looked askance at the growing influence of Saudi Arabia and the US on Pakistan.
The Saudis perceived and portrayed the Iranian revolution as a Shia insurgency against Sunni Muslims. The US also blamed revolutionary Iran for exporting a virulent version of religion in the Middle East. The military regime in Pakistan, which was looking for legitimacy and longevity, readily joined the Saudi-US camp. While Pakistan supported the Taliban during the conflict between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, Iran and India assisted the latter. So Iran went from being an ally to an adversary competing for opposing goals in the region, straining relations between the two countries.
The consequent imposition of sanctions on Iran because of the nuclear issue also limited the scope of trade between the two countries. The Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline also became a casualty of tensions between the US and Iran, and India withdrew from the project under American pressure. The IPI came to be known as the IP after the Indian withdrawal and although Iran had completed its section of the pipeline, Pakistan could not construct the much-needed portion of the pipeline on its side due to the UN sanctions.
Nevertheless, unlike the military regimes, the representative governments in Pakistan, particularly the PML-N, have kept the project alive and have been striving to remove strains between the two countries. Pakistan has rightly refused to be drawn into the Saudi-Iranian conflict in Yemen, sectarian crisis in Bahrain and the diplomatic row between the two after the execution of a Shia religious scholar by Saudi Arabia. It preferred to play a mediatory role to lessen the tensions.
It is in Pakistan’s best interests to remain neutral in any conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Having cordial relations with both is imperative to avoid any adverse backlash on the domestic front, and to boost its efforts for sustained economic development.
In light of these facts and removal of sanctions against Iran, the visit of the Iranian president provides a unique opportunity for both countries to address some of the aberrations in their relations and revive and expand trade relations to their mutual advantage. The hope expressed by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to transform relations between the two countries into a partnership of business and trade was not misplaced, considering the opportunities created by the changed regional scenario.
The two countries have reportedly signed six MoUs, which would boost their bilateral trade to $5billion within the next five years, from the dismally low $1 billion. The Iranian president mentioned the utilisation of the Chahbahar and Gawadar ports to handle increased trade activity in the region and also urged Pakistan to build the IP gas pipeline section on its side as soon as possible. Pakistan needs gas from Iran and the lifting of the sanctions on Iran by the UN has also removed the hurdles in its way. China has also indicated its willingness to contribute to the construction of the pipeline. The leadership of the two countries was also able to discuss the security situation in the region and pledged to cooperate with each other in promoting regional peace.
The Iranian president appreciated Pakistan’s role in tackling terrorism, particularly Operation Zarb-e-Azb. However, in the context of Pak-India tensions he explicitly said that India, like Pakistan, is Iran’s friend, which suggested that Iran was not prepared to side with Pakistan. He also made it a point to mention that tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia were an irritant in regional stability – a reminder to Pakistan of how Iran viewed Saudi influence in the region. The Iranian reservations on these issues notwithstanding, there is tremendous scope to build strong bilateral relations between Iran and Pakistan.
General Raheel Sharif also called on the Iranian president. According to the ISPR, matters relating to regional security, border security and the involvement of RAW in the internal affairs of Pakistan, especially in Balochistan were discussed. Dr Rouhani, however, when talking to media, denied having discussed the issue of the capture of a RAW agent in his meeting with the COAS. The statement by ISPR is ostensibly a faux pas, and is quite embarrassing for the government. The COAS had a meeting with the head of state of a foreign country and any press statement to be made on the contents of the discussions should have come from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The standard diplomatic practice is that the text of any press statement meant to be released after such meetings is usually agreed to by both sides and then made public. Sometimes, the issues discussed are not made public due to the sensitivities involved. Except for this blunder, the visit ended on a positive note.