Iranian President Dr Hassan Rouhani was in Pakistan on an official two-day visit on 25-26 March, 2016. His visit has a greater significance in the wake of the emerging geopolitical situation in the region and especially after Iran’s unshackling from international sanctions. The sojourn has led to realisation of the fact that both the countries can — and must — take their mutual trade to $5 billion in five years. Moreover, COAS General Raheel Sharif also called on the President Rouhani and discussed with him the matters relating to regional security, border security and the involvement of RAW in the internal affairs of Pakistan, especially in Balochistan.
The visit to Pakistan by President Hassan Rouhani is a manifestation of the aspirations that make the leaders of the two countries to provide a boost to Pakistan-Iran cooperation in all realms including political, economic, commercial and cultural fields, improving border security, overcoming extremism and terrorism and endeavouring to coordinate their Afghanistan policies. President Rouhani’s visit took place against the background of a slow but steady process of improvement of the bilateral ties, which had been badly damaged during the 1990’s because of the clash of their Afghanistan policies. It is because of this clash that bilateral relationship could never reach its full potential.
Besides being wary of Pakistan’s Afghan policy, Iran has also been concerned over the security of the 909km border — the Goldsmith Line — and the flow of smuggled goods, narcotics and human smuggling in both directions.
But Pakistan has always supported Iran especially during the crisis over its nuclear programme when the country was almost completely surrounded, both geographically and politically, by Western countries. Only Pakistan in the region stood apart and, unlike India, refused to support the resolution in the IAEA referring Iran to the Security Council and the resulting sanctions. Pakistan consistently insisted that there should be no coercion or use of force; while Iran should fulfil its international obligations, its rights under the NPT to peaceful nuclear energy must reciprocally also be respected.
Since both countries share shares historical and cultural ties, and lifting of sanctions has opened new vistas for economic cooperation, therefore, the need for change was felt on both sides. There are promising opportunities for strengthening bilateral cooperation in economic, commercial, technical and cultural fields. This was also important because both countries have signed a preferential trade agreement and despite this their mutual trade volume has remained far below expectations mainly due to sanctions, non-tariff barriers and smuggling through a porous border.
The recent visit has led to realisation of the fact that both the countries can take their mutual trade to $5 billion in five years —quite a realistic target, keeping in view the size of Iranian economy and its proximity to Pakistan. However, this goal is likely to remain a pipedream unless the two governments take specific and well-considered steps to promote bilateral trade. On the Iranian side, this would involve the removal of non-tariff barriers on trade with Pakistan, particularly those involving Pakistani textiles, rice, fruit and other agricultural products, and the lowering of tariffs.
Pakistan would have to make a special effort to resume and increase the purchase of crude oil from Iran. Hopefully, the discussion of the issue of enhancing the connectivity between Gawadar and Chabahar ports through rail, road and shipping links during the visit would also help in promoting trade between the two countries and enabling the two ports to complement each other.
The completion and operationalization of Iran-Pakistan (IP) gas pipeline would be the most important step that the two countries can take for the development of their economic ties. Iranians have repeatedly told that the pipeline was almost complete on the Iranian side; it is now for Pakistan to fulfil its part of the deal so that the pipeline can be operationalized as soon as possible. We should go even further and link the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects, which might facilitate the export of the Iranian gas to China through Pakistan and make Pakistan the hub of the regional trade and energy corridors. Pakistan can also import electricity from Iran to overcome its power shortage especially in Balochistan. Hassan Rouhani offered to export up to 3000 mw of electricity to Pakistan which is already importing about 100 mw of electricity from Iran for meeting the requirements of its border areas.
The Iranian President also exchanged views with PM Nawaz Sharif on the Afghan peace process during the visit. The Iranian side agreed to the Pakistani proposal for trilateral talks among Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan on the issue. This was an important development considering the damage that the differences of their Afghanistan policies had inflicted on the bilateral relations before 9/11. Further, considering the long border that Iran has with Afghanistan and its deep historical and cultural links with the latter, the coordination of the Afghanistan policies of Pakistan and Iran is an indispensable condition for the success of the Afghan peace process. The trilateral talks among Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, therefore, must be a regular feature of the efforts for the restoration of durable peace in Afghanistan.
The border security issue has also occasionally been an irritant in Pakistan-Iran relations. It has been alleged by Iran that some criminal gangs operating from Pakistani Balochistan had the support of some non-regional intelligence agencies. More recently, Pakistan has expressed its uneasiness about the terrorist activities in Pakistani Balochistan and Karachi, inspired and supported by RAW agents who were operating from the Iranian Balochistan. Obviously, there are forces which in pursuit of their own nefarious designs wish to damage friendly relations between the two countries. The two governments should not allow these efforts to succeed and should take all possible steps to ensure the security of their common border.
An improved relationship should also remove misunderstandings and hopefully their causes; be it border security, sectarian funding or apprehensions that Iran is one of the many regional and extra-regional countries who do not find the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor multi-dimensional project to be in accordance with their own interests.
Iran will further understand that Pakistan, while it has not joined the GCC forces in Yemen, will maintain its strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia and the other GCC countries and that is why it has joined the Saudi led anti-terror coalition and participated in their recent military exercise. The GCC should also understand that the pipeline from Iran will contribute to Pakistan’s economic take-off and a stronger Pakistan is very much in their interests as well.