Chief of the Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s recent visit to Iran is a portent of a positive turn of direction in Pakistan-Iran relations. It was the first visit to Iran by a Pakistani COAS in more than two decades. Pervez Musharraf’s visits to Iran in December, 1999 and June, 2000, when I was serving as the Pakistan ambassador to Iran, were more in his capacity as the Chief Executive rather than as COAS. The latter visit to attend the ECO summit was not even a bilateral visit. General Bajwa’s visit to Tehran took place in the backdrop of the growing realization by the leaders and policy makers of the two countries that their security and economic well-being were interlinked. The evolution of the global and regional security environment is also pushing the two countries closer to each other. Further, Pakistan and Iran can benefit enormously from mutual cooperation in economic, commercial, and security fields. Besides bilateral cooperation, the Economic Cooperation Organization with its headquarters in Tehran offers attractive opportunities for regional cooperation to Pakistan, Iran, and the other eight member states of the organization. Thus, COAS’s visit to Tehran took place at a propitious time to take advantage of the vast opportunities beckoning the two countries towards mutually beneficial cooperation in various fields.
There is no denying the fact that Pakistan-Iran relations received a serious setback in 1990’s because of the wide and deep-seated policy differences between them concerning Afghanistan. They virtually fought a proxy war in Afghanistan with Iran extending support to the Northern Alliance and Pakistan backing the Taliban. The gulf of mistrust created by the clash of their Afghanistan policies weakened Pakistan-Iran friendship and cooperation in different fields. The climate of mutual mistrust and the state of limited cooperation has remained unchanged despite some feeble attempts now and then to strengthen Pakistan-Iran relations. The U-turn in its pro-Taliban policy, forced on Pakistan by the US in the aftermath of 9/11, provided an opportunity to Islamabad and Tehran to overcome the mutual mistrust and set a new and positive direction for their relationship. However, the gulf of mistrust was too wide and the American pressure on Pakistan too great to allow them to take full advantage of that opportunity.
The history of the Pakistan-Iran gas pipeline project is sufficient to drive home this point. Pakistan is deficient in the domestic supply of natural gas whereas Iran, which has the second largest gas reserves in the world and is in search of markets for its gas, is in a position to meet Pakistan’s rapidly growing requirements for the import of gas. The project, therefore, is in the best interests of both the countries, especially Pakistan which through its implementation can have easy access to cheap and secure supply of gas. But the American sanctions against Iran and pressure on Pakistan have prevented Islamabad and Tehran from completing the project and making it operational. Whereas Iran has laid down the pipeline almost up to the Pakistan-Iran border, Islamabad so far has failed to fulfill its responsibilities under the project. As a result, the project, which can give a boost to Pakistan-Iran friendship besides providing us with the much-needed gas, remains an unrealized dream. Hopefully, the implementation of the CPEC will open the way for the successful completion of the Pakistan-Iran gas pipeline project. Pakistan, in the immediate future, can lay down a gas pipeline linking the proposed LNG plant at Gwadar with the country’s main gas pipeline network as part of CPEC projects underway in the country. Later at an appropriate time, this pipeline can be quickly extended to link up with the pipeline coming from Iran.
This is just one example of the heavy price that Pakistan has paid and continues to pay for compliance with the unreasonable US demands. The security cooperation between Pakistan and Iran has suffered even more because of the impact of strategic divergence between them. Pakistan, despite some occasional problems, has remained aligned with the US, at least for some limited purposes, even in the post-Cold War era in contrast with the intense animosity between the US and Iran which has been subjected to the most onerous sanctions by Washington. This factor brought defense cooperation between Pakistan and Iran virtually to a standstill in a marked departure from the close cooperation between them in earlier days, especially during the time of the Shah when both Pakistan and Iran were part of the Western bloc led by the US. In addition, it allowed terrorist and criminal elements to operate across the Pakistan-Iran border. Iran has complained from time to time about the terrorist activities in Iran of Jaish al-Adl which is allegedly based in Pakistani Balochistan. There are reports which claim that some non-regional and regional intelligence agencies have been funding this terrorist outfit.
India is fully aware of the importance of Pakistan’s friendship with Iran for the former’s security and economic well-being. In view of its hostile designs against Pakistan, New Delhi has taken full advantage of the alienation between Pakistan and Iran to strengthen its political, economic, and security links with Iran and create misunderstandings between Islamabad and Tehran. India has achieved considerable success in these efforts to the detriment of Pakistan and Pakistan-Iran friendship. The arrest of Indian RAW agent Kulbhushan Jadhav, a serving officer of the Indian navy, on charges of involvement in terrorist activities in
Pakistan, while being based in Iran, is just one example of how India has exploited the vacuum created by Pakistan-Iran differences to its advantage.
General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s visit to Tehran shows that Pakistan’s military establishment is cognizant of the dangers inherent in the continued alienation between Pakistan and Iran for Pakistan’s security and economic well-being. Both Iran and Pakistan need to recognize that it is in their enlightened self-interest to engage in mutually beneficial cooperation in economic, defense, security, and cultural fields. It is encouraging that as a result of General Bajwa’s meetings with the Iranian political and military leadership, the two sides have agreed to cooperate with each other in combating terrorism and cross-border criminal activities, and in promoting bilateral defense and security cooperation. It also makes sense for them to deal with contentious issues such as Afghanistan on the basis of mutual understanding and accommodation of each other’s point of view with the aim of finding common ground on which they can cooperate. National reconciliation and a freely concluded political settlement among the various Afghan parties, withdrawal of foreign forces, and non-interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs should be the guiding principles for durable peace and stability in that country.
The visit by the Pakistani COAS was a good beginning to put the relationship between Pakistan and Iran on a sound footing, especially because of the critically important role that the military establishment in Pakistan plays in security and strategically important foreign policy issues such as Afghanistan, India, and relations with the US. Pakistan’s political leadership should now build up on the understandings arrived at during the visit to expand areas of cooperation so as to cover political, economic, commercial, and cultural fields in addition to defense and security. We should also involve and integrate Iran in the implementation of the CPEC projects. The possibility of extending Pakistan-Iran gas pipeline to China once it becomes operational should be given serious consideration. Finally, Islamabad should avoid taking sides on disputes between Iran and Saudi Arabia and instead should try to promote understanding between them.