Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s recent visit to Tehran is expected to restore some degree of normality to Pak-Iran bilateral relationship, in that it helped clear quite a few misconceptions and mix-ups on some important issues of mutual interest. None of the two sides expects quick return to normality given the complex regional and international issues. But what seems to have materialized in terms of progress on critical issues like IP gas pipeline project and the lingering instability on the common border amply suggests possibility of improving upon the quality and quantity of mutually beneficial bilateralism.
Historically, Pakistan and Iran have enjoyed an excellent relationship, based on mutuality, Muslim brotherhood, political engagement, economic cooperation and strategic partnership in the international politics. However, in the post Islamic Revolution period, their aspirations in Afghanistan following the Soviet withdrawal of 1989, created a chasm in their bilateral relationship. Though the differences were not many, yet the superfluous emotionalism, malevolent external factors, existence of a particular mindset on both sides and a changing geopolitical environment further complicated this relationship in the decade of 1990s. In the ensuing years, many local and global happenings further aggravated the situation.
The recent two-day visit of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was preceded by a hectic diplomacy and a strong wish to rejuvenate Pak-Iran relationship to make it mutually rewarding. During his visit, he had a frank exchange of views with President Hassan Rouhani on almost all bilateral and regional issues. He also called on the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and visited mausoleum of Imam Reza in Mashad, while his team signed up eight MoUs with their counterparts. On the issues of border security between Pakistan and Iran, interior ministries recently developed a consensus on important bilateral problems. Officials of both countries agreed to install a hotline for controlling border security issues, smuggling, human trafficking, greater intelligence sharing and terrorists’ inflow on either side.
How the understandings and agreements arrived at in Tehran figure out in concrete terms depends on the followup action on the part of two governments, though the emerging atmospherics, both regional and international, are more helpful now than ever before since the Afghan civil war pitted them against each other.
How Nawaz government confronts the challenges and exploits opportunities, we will watch and wait as things play out on the future of Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project and sectarian violence in the common border areas. There is a list of regional and global issues, hounding the bilateral relations for quite some time. Resolution of these issues needs a broader understanding, strategic vision and a strong resolve on both sides to tackle them in the best interest of the both nations. Are the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and President Hassan Rouhani sufficiently poised to take a leap forward, forgetting the past and with optimism? What would be the response of their other strategic partners, who may be adjacent to this possible reconciliation? Would the powerful clergy on either side go alongside or take a different course? These ground realities, may have to be taken into consideration by leadership of both countries for the reorientation of their long-term political and strategic relationship, but without becoming their hostage.
The Iranian perspective on the border trouble has been conveyed, quite unambiguously, to Prime Minister Sharif by the host country’s ultimate authority, Ayatollah Khamenei. In his words: ‘we do have information’ that the United States and ‘some other governments’ are trying to create insecurity in there ‘we cannot believe these are unprovoked and accidental’.
At present, not only determined followup is required, it is also imperative that they do not repeat their past mistakes of engaging in a proxy war in neighbouring Afghanistan when foreign forces withdraw from there later this year. Believably, the prime minister’s categorical statement at the envoys’ conference in Islamabad on the eve of his departure for Tehran that Pakistan’s ‘special relationship’ with Saudi Arabia greatly helped clear the decks for his constructive engagement with his hosts.
Iran was the first country to internationally recognize Pakistan, and the bonhomie flourished as the two sides stood on the same side of the Cold War confrontational divide and were partners of the US-led Cento.
But warmth in their relationship left as Pakistan’s friends and allies in the West and Arab world nurtured judgmental determinations of the Islamic Revolution in Iran.
Among the prevailing differences, the Iran-Pakistan (IP) Gas Pipeline is the primal issue, where both countries would like to take a final decision, whether to implement or abandon it. Timings are crucial, as Pakistan will have to pay a penalty of $3 million per day in case of its non-compliance of the agreement on the pipeline by December 2014. Iran has already completed its side of the pipeline and wants Pakistan to adhere to the agreement. Pakistan apparently has two problems linked with IP Gas Pipeline; lack of finances and US pressure (linked with UN sanctions on Iran). If Iran is unable to finance the Pakistani side of the pipeline as promised sometime back, Pakistan should explore other options and opportunities for the construction of the pipeline. After all, the energy shortages have seriously affected the industrial production and economy of Pakistan, beside domestic consumers. Materialization of IP gas pipeline is in the best national interest of Pakistan, unless, Pakistani leadership safeguards the interests of ‘others’. If UN sanctions and US pressure could not constrain India for its oil and other imports from Iran, why should Pakistan be so apologetic about its gas imports from Iran? Since TAPI would take a long time for its implementation and there is no immediate alternative arrangement to make up its energy needs, therefore, Premier Sharif should go ahead with the IP gas pipeline.
Another quandary, bothering the bilateral relationship of Pakistan and Iran is a clear imbalance in its relationship between Iran and GCC countries, especially Saudi Arabia. India has maintained a balanced relationship with Iran and Saudi Arabia besides other GCC states, based on bilateralism with maximum gains in term of economy, social linkages and political engagement. What compelled Pakistani foreign policymakers to construct unwanted biases and discriminations? Pakistan could have maintained its relationship with Iran and GCC, purely based on bilateralism and direct state-to-state relationship. Its relationship with one state should not have been dictated by any other state or non-state actor or at the cost of another state. Since we are living in a real world, dominated by realist’s thoughts, therefore, let us re-orient ourselves with the ground realities. Diversification of our relationship through independent foreign policy is the best way forward.
On the issue of Syria and wider Middle Eastern predicaments, Pakistan needs to follow a clear and an unbiased foreign policy. Its relationship should be with states, not the non-state actors and personalities. The rebels in Syria may get a sponsorship from NATO, US or wider Middle Eastern states, but Pakistan must not become a party to them. During the visit, Premier Sharif must assure the Iran about its impartiality on the issue of Syria and equally demand the later to adopt similar policies on the wider issues of Middle East without creating biases and creating groups among the Muslim community. On the issue of Afghanistan, rather trying to secure political spacing for using against each other, both sides should follow the policy of neutrality and helping in the stabilization of this war-torn country.
The ball is now in Islamabad’s court. But there is no reason why Pakistan cannot come clean on it ‘for it is Pakistan, more than any other country, which is the prime victim of religious extremism and sectarianism. Perhaps, the paucity of contact between the two countries breeds the atmosphere of mistrust between them. Hopefully, the prime minister’s visit brings down barriers of misperceptions and the two sides join hands to fight and defeat the common enemy of religious extremism and sectarianism.