India’s strategic posturing in the IOR continues unabated. Its acquisition of bases/port facilities at Duqm, Oman and Chahbahar, Iran in particular pose real threats to Pakistan and its interests in the region. These positions straddle the Hormuz Straits and place Pakistan’s SLOCs and Mekran Coast within Indian strategic reach. The Indo-Iran Defense Pact of 2003 accentuates these threats manifold. The strategic environment thus continues to unravel ominously. Pakistan must get into serious contingency planning at all appropriate levels!
Relations between Iran and Pakistan have oscillated variously between the sweet and the bitter. Geopolitical vagaries and their conflicting alliances/alignments at particular points in time and history have mostly defined their bilateral relations. And so is it now.
Currently, both sides have more than enough reasons to feel miffed by one other.
Iran feels that Pakistan’s strategic alliance with the KSA boosts the latter’s ambitions to dominate the Greater Middle East Region (GMER) much to its detriment. It fears that Pakistan’s military contingents in the KSA may be used to harm its interests in the GMER, especially Yemen. Iranian FM Javad Zarif‘s statement in Islamabad recently equating Indo-Iran relations with Pakistan-KSA relations was rather ingenuous, to say the least. That was a pretty sorry play on words as both relationships are very dissimilar in nature, operate at entirely different levels and have differing strategic connotations for one another and the GMER at large. Pakistan’s troops in the KSA pose no direct threat to Iran or its interests in the region. Pakistan has no Defense Pact with the KSA or any other country that specifically permits it to use Pakistani military bases against Iran; whereas the Indo-Iran Defense pact of 2003 specifically allows India the use of Iranian bases/facilities against Pakistan in case of an Indo-Pak war! Thus the Indo-Iran Defense Pact directly threatens Pakistan while Pakistan provides no country any such facilities/opportunities against Iran. And that is where the underlying dichotomy in the relationship, amongst other factors, lies. Mr Javad Zarif will know well that good strategists prepare themselves keeping the adversary’s (here India’s hostile presence in Chahbahar) current and potential capabilities in mind rather than its professed intentions. Pakistan of necessity must initiate the necessary counter measures - political, diplomatic, economic, and military - to neutralize this very potent threat.
Iran is apparently miffed too because of the much delayed Iran-Pakistan Gas Pipeline Project. Pakistan feels constrained by the international sanctions on Iran, the inherent weakness of its own economy and its inability to absorb any potential punitive international sanctions. Iran is further wary of Pakistan’s alternate arrangements to get LNG from Qatar and gas through the TAPI Gas Pipeline. Furthermore, the Russians have also evinced interest in the US $ 2 Billion North-South Gas Pipeline from Lahore to Karachi and in supplying LNG to Pakistan. So Iran probably feels cheated out of an agreed contract- and not entirely without reason too! Iran also feels that the KSA is destabilising its border areas by sponsoring virulently anti-Shia groups like the Jaesh-e-Adl which reportedly operates cross border from Pakistan. Pakistan denies it and must evict these terrorists from its soil, if present.
Pakistan too has some grievances. It considers the rather explicit anti-Pakistan nature of the Indo-Iran Defense Pact of 2003 as a real threat. Iran is clearly committed to facilitating Pakistan’s sworn enemy in harming it. The fact that the Indian presence in Chahbahar literally threatens Pakistan with double envelopment is not lost on the Pakistanis. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, Chahbahar’s close proximity to the Mekran Coast/CPEC and its potential of being converted into a future multipurpose military base for intelligence gathering, radar and communication stations, naval, submarine, missile, logistics and/or air force assets must weigh heavily with Pakistani strategists right now. Is then the Indian need for a new trade corridor for Afghanistan/CARs a smoke screen for deeper sinister strategic designs? In a worst case war scenario, could the Indians place some of their nukes/missiles in Chahbahar, Duqm or any of the other military bases they are desperately acquiring all over the IOR to retain their second strike capability? Can such a possibility, even if remote, be ignored outright? Will it demand a preparatory/pre-emptive response from Pakistan? Is the GMER getting rapidly destabilised by all this strategic posturing and counter measures thereto?
Pakistan also has serious concerns on the reported return of the “Zainabiyoun Brigade” from Syria. Allegedly, a number of volunteer Pakistani-Shias were trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp and were operationally deployed to fight for President Assad in Syria. They are now infiltrating back into Pakistan as battle hardened and experienced fighters. They might reportedly be employed as a force to protect the hapless Hazara community from the anti-Shia terrorists operating with reckless abandon in Balochistan. This will lead to clashes and severe destabilisation of Balochistan, Pakistan and the CPEC. This is a deadly threat for Pakistan’s solidarity, sectarian harmony and territorial integrity and must be forcefully pre-empted by the governments, LEAs, intelligence agencies and armed forces.
Iran and Oman must reconsider their arrangements with India and their impact on their relations with Pakistan. If Indians use these bases/ports to harm Pakistan or its interests, then in times of hostilities they will automatically become legitimate targets for Pakistan. That would inevitably draw Oman and Iran into the conflict raising it to the regional level. Is this then a desired end state for India - to thus restrict Pakistan’s operational responses by default? Pakistan’s COAS has visited both Iran and Oman for some bare boned military-diplomacy, recently. It is hoped that his efforts will bring some sanity and balance back into the rapidly degenerating regional strategic environment.
Pakistan and Iran must overcome their mutual mistrust. Their allies/adversaries must never have a defining or overwhelming effect on their mutual ties. These must evolve on their own, independent of all extraneous pressures and compulsions. China’s investments in the South Central Asian Region (CPEC/OBOR) are a major interest of convergence and should become the catalyst for a renewed, stronger and vastly improved start to bilateral relations!
The author is a retired Brigadier and is currently on the faculty of NUST (NIPCONS).