The visit to Pakistan by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani coincided with the arrest of Indian RAW operative Kulbhushan Yadav in Balochistan. The visit was not just drowned out by the fact of the arrest, but by the role of Iran, which had allowed Yadav entry in its port of Chahbahar, after which he had illegally entered Pakistan through its border with Iran.

Rouhani had brought along a large trade delegation, and Pakistani Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif announced a target of $5 billion in mutual trade, but the elephant in the room was clearly the USA. Though one of the big differences between Pakistan and Iran was their respective relations with the USA, Iran has moved closer to the USA, having agreed on a nuclear deal which would allow the USA to lift the sanctions it had imposed on Iran, and which made Pakistan stop work on the gas pipeline project.

While there is a strong economic component to the visit, there is also an aspect of the Pak-Iran special relationship. That is not just based on their common Islamic heritage, but also on the fact that Pakistan is a sort of outlier of Iran culturally. That has ensured that the relationship predates the creation of Pakistan. It should not be forgotten that Islam in the Subcontinent was mediated through Iran. That the Kingdom of Oudh and the Persian Empire were the only two Ithna Ashari states to have existed might have been a historic anomaly, had not the largest Ithna Ashari minority become Pakistani. As Muslim migrants to India had to come through Persia, there was a very Persian cast to Islam in the Subcontinent. Persian culture was also adopted in Central Asia, so the Turk conquerors of the Subcontinent espoused it, and the Mughal court proved so great a patron of the Persian language, that for some time, Persian poets were attracted to the Mughal court rather than the Safawi.

The USA and Iran have another point of convergence: India. It is worth noting that, under the Shah, Iran provided help to Pakistan in the 1965 War against India. At that time, Pakistan and Iran were also part of the Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO) along with Turkey, which was part of the ring the USA threw around the USSR during the Cold War. The eastern-most member of NATO, Turkey, was the western-most member of CENTO, whose eastern-most member, Pakistan, was the western-most member of SEATO, whose eastern-most member, Indonesia, bordered the western-most member of the ANZUS pact, Australia. India was at that time in the Soviet camp, and though not communist, had a treaty of Peace and Friendship with the USSR. Iran drew closer to India after its 1979 Revolution, Iran also softened to the USSR, then Russia, because it reversed the Shah’s virulent pro-Americanism, which included friendship with Israel.

However, the USA has used nuclear deals well, and has used them with India and Iran to draw them closer. It has rattled old allies. In the case of both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the result has been a drawing closer of an already close relationship. The Iran-Saudi relationship has been complex, but with Pakistan part of the anti-ISIL coalition is building, it is set to come into a direct confrontation. Iran is also developing ties with India, as is Saudi Arabia. Both have ignored Pakistani protests over this.

Another dimension of the bilateral relationship is the Afghan situation. Iran wants a stable Afghanistan, and does not want a return of the Taliban. Afghanistan’s pro-US forces are also pro-Indian, as are the pro-Iranian, as opposed to the pro-Pakistani forces. The Taliban are seen as being pro-Pakistan.

Another thing that was worth remarking in this visit was the call on President Rouhani by COAS Gen Raheel Sharif. One of the inevitable topics would have been the Pakistani participation in the 34-country Saudi-led coalition. This coalition is seen as being against ISIL, and thus in support of the Assad regime. This is confusing, for the coalition leader is Saudi Arabia, which has so far been working for Assad’s removal.

However, the coalition also wants ISIL finished. While Iran wants ISIL suppressed, it does not want Assad removed. The hold-out from the coalition among the Muslim countries has been Turkey, which also wants Assad removed, and which has drawn attention as not just the main point from which Europeans join ISIS, but also the main crossing point of refugees from Syria. Pakistan has so far not taken a stand one way or another, though upping its participation in the coalition would make it oppose the Assad regime. While that would place it along with the USA and its firm allies, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, it would be a point of divergence with Iran.

The ramifications of the Iranian President having a one-on-one meeting with the Pakistani COAS belong primarily to Pakistani domestic politics, but the effect on bilateral relations would involve the admission that there is no alternative to Bashar proposed by those who would have him go. The ceasefire in Syria is holding (the recent, post-ceasefire, fall of Palmyra is not a violation: it was taken from ISIL, to whom the ceasefire does not apply), but the anti-Assad forces have not been able to present an alternative to President Bashar Al-Assad.

The COAS told President Rouhani of Indian use of Iranian soil for activities against Pakistan though Balochistan, though this was denied by Rouhani himself in his wrap-up press conference. The denial would be used by the Iranians to allay Indian concerns about Iran’s role in the whole affair, that coincided with the Rouhani visit, and which may have been caused by Iranian-Indian cooperation extending to intelligence cooperation. Iran should have no interest in backing Baloch separatism, because that would mean indirectly encouraging its own Baloch separatists. Iran has not used its Kurdish minority against anyone in the Middle East, though those in Turkey are restive, and those in Iraq are largely autonomous, while the USA would like to use those in Syria as boots on the ground. It should be noted that this has created a problem with Turkey, one in which Iran has stayed out.

However, India is not the USA, even though it might be a wannabe. Also, Indian antipathy to Pakistan is great enough for it to prefer hurting Iran by Balochistani unrest to restraint against Pakistan. It should not be forgotten that one subject for discussion was Gwadar port, China’s safe haven in the Indian Ocean. Not only is China pushing the Chinese-Pakistan Economic Corridor, but it is also Iran’s main client for oil, even though Gwadar is planned to replace Iran’s Chahbahar. It is not without symbolism that the arrested RAW operative is a naval officer.

Whether or not the visit allowed either side to resolve the many complexities of the relationship, that the visit itself took place is a sign that President Rouhani is gaining the kind of international recognition that he hoped for when elected. The visit was planned before his recent triumph in the elections both to the Majlis and the Council of Experts, but the victory means that he was more representative than ever of Iranian opinion, which implies that his pro-development tilt has been confirmed. This would sit well with the pro-business Nawaz government.