Pakistan-Iran ties have been plagued by wider geopolitical wrangling in the region for decades. Can Prime Minister Imran Khan insulate the two countries from the region's political baggage?
Imran Khan has followed in the Pakistan Army Chief of Staff's (COAS), Qamar Javed Bajwa, footsteps in making a bold outreach to Tehran. Khan’s two-day visit on the 21st should not be seen as ‘bold’ per se, given the historical relations between the two countries. However, Pakistan’s undeniable drift towards Saudi Arabia over the last four decades has made Pakistan-Iran ties tenuous at best.
There are considerable tensions between Iran and Pakistan that go back to the 1979 Islamic revolution in Tehran. However, as Khan completed his trip, he announced that his vision for Pakistan is similar to Khomeini’s revolution.
Khan so far has torn the foreign policy rule book with departures from Pakistan’s erstwhile Cold War-era tactics of zero-sum games in international affairs. There was much criticism in Parliament over his remarks in Iran, and on social media quite a few were questioning why he had to go at a time of tense relations and when the Pakistani Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi was blaming Iran for terrorist attacks in Baluchistan.
Imran Khan is clearly going against the grain and trying to mend ties with Tehran as both he and the COAS realise Pakistan cannot afford hostile relations with Iran. So can Imran stem the downward trajectory of relations with Iran?
Why the tension between Iran and Pakistan
To say that Pakistan and Iran tensions are new would be foolhardy; tensions have now existed for almost four decades. Umar Karim, who is a research scholar at Birmingham University and analyses Pakistan’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and Iran, argues that Iran and Pakistan ties were excellent and strategic way up until the revolution in 1979.
Before 1979, Iran had even threatened to attack India if it did not seize its offensive against Pakistan in the 1971 war, and Iran had previously been one of the very few countries that physically supported Pakistan in its wars against India.
Asadollah Alam, a former senior official in the Shah’s time talks about Iranians support to Pakistan in some detail in his books, The Shah and I: The Confidential Diary of Iran's Royal Court, 1968-77. However as the Shah exited, it also coincided with Pakistan’s increased involvement with the Saudis in the war in Afghanistan.
The war in Afghanistan brought the two erstwhile allies at loggerheads, and this peaked when the Pakistan-backed Taliban killed Iranian diplomats during the 1990s. Since the 1990s Pakistan and Iranian interests have been divergent, and the tensest issues have revolved around the fate of Afghanistan and the two countries’ Baloch insurgencies, both of whom have played the blame game over the last three years in particular.
In February, the former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) threatened retaliation if Pakistan would not take care of terrorist sanctuaries attacking Iranian officials. It also took Pakistan over four months to capture the abducted Iranian border guards. Right after the Iranian accusations came Pakistan’s counter-accusation right on the cusp of Imran’s visit to Iran. It would be foolish to ignore the Saudi factor in the downturn in Pakistan’s relations with Iran.
Earlier this year, Qassem Soleimani pointed out to Pakistan that continued Saudi involvement in Pakistan would lead to disaster for the whole region. Of course, the IRGC is not alone in accusing the Saudis of playing with fire in Pakistan. However, to Pakistan’s credit, it did not take part in the Saudi-led war in Yemen despite heavy pressure from its Gulf ally.
A recent article outlines how Iranian Saudi tensions could cause a major headache for Pakistan. Saudi Arabia’s investment in the volatile Baloch region right on the Iran border is a concern for Iran. Similarly, the appointment of former Pakistan Army Chief, General Raheel Sharif to lead the Saudi backed ‘Islamic NATO’ is also frowned upon by Tehran.
Khan to break the ice
Imran Khan has so far stayed away from the Saudi-Iran tension and instead even sought to be a mediator in the Yemen war between the two adversaries. He was on a charm offensive in Tehran and also spoke of how Persian used to be the court language of the Indian subcontinent before the arrival of the British. He has also appeased the Iranians by admitting Pakistan had given haven to groups attacking Iran in the past but would do so no more.
Though heavily criticised by the opposition for his 'militant sanctuary' comment, Khan has taken a bold step to reach out to Tehran. He did the same with India when he handed over the downed pilot thereby setting a precedent of reconciliation.
The Pakistani prime minister has a long way to go to fight increasing Saudi influence in Pakistani media and politics to balance the relations with Iran. At the same time, he has to address the issue of the alleged Indian-Iranian alliance against Pakistani interests. Khan has to battle both his own anti-Iran hawks and the Iranians who allege Pakistan is just a Saudi stooge. It could be a tough test given the precarious proxy wars waging all over the Middle East between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Khan needs to make sure Balochistan does not become the latest battleground if it is not already.
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