Signs of strains in Pakistan-Iran relations have been unmistakable for quite some time. First came reports of Iranian disquiet about Pakistan’s participation in the Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT). It was quite clear that, despite the assurances given by Pakistan at various levels that it would not be a party to any anti-Iran activity by this organisation, Tehran continued to view it with deep mistrust and apprehensions. This was not entirely surprising considering the statements made by Saudi and US leaders pointing out that the main objective of the new organisation would be to counter Iranian interests in the region. It was also alleged by some quarters that this Alliance was sectarian in character being an Alliance of Sunni-majority states against Shia majority states such as Iran and Iraq, both of which are not its members. The departure of General (Retired) Raheel Sharif, former Chief of the Army Staff, for Saudi Arabia on 21 April to assume the command of this Alliance merely added to Iranian apprehensions which the visit of a Pakistani parliamentary delegation, led by the Speaker of the National Assembly, to Iran last month was not able to overcome. In a telling remark, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told National Assembly Speaker Ayaz Sadiq on 24 April that the countries which had been supporting terrorist groups could “not claim to be combating them”.

Iranian concerns are not totally unwarranted. On 19 April, US Defence Secretary James Mattis, after meetings with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud and Prince Mohammad bin Salman, Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister, welcomed the move to form an Alliance of Arab and other Muslim countries to counter Iranian influence in the region. Prince Mohammed himself in an interview given to MBC television stated on 2 May stated, “How can we get along with regime (in Iran) which has an extremist ideology….and a profound wish to dominate the Muslim world and spread the Shiite faith?” The remark not only reflects the deep-seated hostility with which Saudi Arabia views Iran and its activities in the region but, more importantly, the dangers of IMAFT assuming a sectarian character thereby aggravating the divisions and disputes within the Muslim world instead of strengthening its unity. Obviously such a development would also undermine Pakistan’s internal political stability and social harmony besides having serious adverse repercussions on Pakistan-Iran relations. The forthcoming meeting of the Defence Ministers of IMAFT provides us with a useful opportunity to ensure that the Alliance’s activities remain focused on combatting terrorism in accordance with its generally accepted definition within the Muslim world, that it does not become a vehicle for anti-Iran operations or assume a sectarian character, and that it refrains from interference in the internal affairs of other states and from involvement in intra-Arab disputes.

These developments coincided with a press release issued by ISPR on 12 April, 2017 on the basis of a confessional statement recorded by Uzair Jan Baloch a year earlier that he had been passing on secret information about the Pakistan army, its intelligence wings, and key security installations of the country to an Iranian intelligence agency. The allegation was rejected by the Iranian embassy in Islamabad as “unfounded”. The embassy claimed that the “dissemination of such baseless” material was aimed at turning the public opinion in Pakistan against Iran, and was “not commensurate with the trajectory of expanding bilateral relations in all spheres between two friendly and brotherly countries of Iran and Pakistan”. It would also be recalled that earlier in March last year Kulbhushan Jadhav, a serving officer of the Indian navy, who was based in Chahbahar, was arrested in Pakistani Balochistan on charges of involvement in terrorist and subversive activities in Pakistan, especially in Balochistan and Karachi. The report of his arrest was made public on the eve of the visit of the Iranian President to Pakistan the same month. Viewed from the point of view of Pakistan-Iran relations, the media handling of the report of Kulbhushan’s arrest during and after the Iranian President’s visit left a lot to be desired.

More recently, on 26 April ten Iranian border guards were killed in a terrorist attack carried out by Jash al-Adl, a Sunni militant group, at Mirjaveh near the border with Pakistan. Similar incidents had taken place in earlier years also. According to Iranian allegations, the militant group is based in Pakistani Balochistan and enjoys the support of intelligence agencies from the Gulf and the West. The Iranian Foreign Ministry lodged a protest with the Pakistan ambassador over the incident. In addition, its spokesman, in a statement, held the Pakistan government accountable for the terrorist attack and pointedly remarked that “the countries that are participating in the anti-terrorist coalition should respond why they are unable to deal with terrorist groups and armed bandits in their territories.” Here in Islamabad, the Foreign Office assured the Iranian ambassador, who conveyed his government’s concern over the terrorist attack, that Pakistan would extend full cooperation to the Iranian government in strengthening coordination and security along the border. The seriousness of the Iranian concern was brought home by a letter from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif expressing the hope that “those responsible for this terrorist attack (would) be arrested and prosecuted”. Rouhani noted that “Pakistan’s safety, growth, and progress have always topped Iran’s agenda of ties with the friendly and neighbouring country….Iran’s soil has never been abused against any of its neighbours including Pakistan”. He added, however, that Iran “is very disheartened that it is repeatedly transgressed upon from the Pakistani soil by armed bandits and terrorist hirelings.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif visited Islamabad on 4 May to press Pakistani authorities to take action against terrorists involved in the attack on the Iranian border guards and adopt necessary measures to prevent such attacks in the future. Jawad Zarif had meetings with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan, Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa, and National Security Adviser Lt. General (Retired) Nasser Janjua. During these meetings, the Iranian Foreign Minister was assured that Pakistan would take steps to prevent cross-border attacks, including the deployment of additional troops along its border with Iran. The two sides also agreed to ensure better coordination, greater intelligence sharing, and frequent interactions at political, military and security levels.

The importance of friendly relations between Pakistan and Iran for their security and economic progress cannot be overemphasised. The current strains in their relations are, therefore, highly regrettable. Islamabad and Tehran must handle their vital bilateral relationship with great care to safeguard and promote their shared political, security, and economic interests. At the same time, they should learn to deal with their differences on various issues through mutual understanding and accommodation. Unfortunately, both the countries were guilty of serious blunders in handling the Afghanistan issue and their bilateral relations in 1990’s with serious adverse repercussions on their security and economic well-being. They cannot afford to repeat those mistakes. They must also beware of the intrigues and machinations of their common enemies who would like to create divisions and disputes between the Muslim countries thereby weakening them and slowing down their progress. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s recent visit to Pakistan was a welcome development as it conveyed Iran’s preference to resolve its difference with Pakistan through diplomacy. It is in Pakistan’s own interest to respond positively to the Iranian initiative and take all possible steps for strengthening bilateral relations and resolving mutual differences amicably.