The two-day visit to Iran by Prime Minister Imran Khan coming in the backdrop of killing of 14 Pakistani security personnel by the Baloch militants who came from Iran from their camps along the border, has surely produced very positive results. The two countries have agreed to set up Joint Rapid Reaction Force to fight terrorism and guard the common border between the two countries and vowed not to allow their territories to be used for terrorist activities. Relations between the two countries were under great stress following terrorist attacks on both sides of the frontier. Hopefully it would help in tackling cross-border acts of terrorism and removal of the Baloch militants from the Iranian soil. Pakistan’s resolve to fence the entire Pak-Iran border, a decision taken immediately after the Ormara attack would also go a long way in preventing the recurrence of such incidents.

In the context of bilateral relations, the two sides also resolved to enhance cooperation in a number of social and cultural domains besides expanding economic relations. Prime Minister Imran Khan in a joint press conference with Iranian president said “Pakistan is after finding a mechanism to enhance economic relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran, particularly in the oil and gas sector”. He noted that the two-way trade was very limited. However it remains to be seen whether Pakistan would be able to resist the US pressure and defy US sanctions against Iran. The trade between the two countries has remained limited in the past because of the US sanctions. After wriggling out of the nuclear deal with Iran by President Trump, the US has announced to reinforce sanctions on Iran that existed before the nuclear deal and also to end waivers on Iranian oil given to countries like India, China, Greece, Italy, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan which is likely to be announced by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on 2nd May.

The non-implementation of IP gas pipeline Project conceived in 1995 was also attributable to US opposition and pressure. The chances of the implementation of the IP gas project had improved after the signing of nuclear deal between Iran, US and P5 countries in Geneva on 24 November 2013. Soon after this development the then minister for Petroleum and Natural Resources Khaqan Abbassi visited Iran and met his counterpart on 9th December wherein the two countries resolved to go ahead with the completion of the project.

Iranian President Dr. Hassan Rouhani paid a two-day visit to Pakistan in March 2016. The two countries signed six MOUs in regards to enhancement of bilateral ties in diverse areas of trade, economy and energy which gave new direction to the economic ties with the resolve to boost bilateral trade to $5 billion within the next five years which stood at present $I billion at that time. Iranian President mentioned utilization of Chahbahar and Gawadar Ports to handle increased activity in the region and also urged Pakistan to build the IP gas pipeline section on its side as soon as possible. However due to variety of reasons IP gas pipe line remained as elusive as ever and the trade volume also did not achieve the envisaged level. It stood at $ 1.3 billion by the end of 2018.

It would perhaps be pertinent to have an insight into the history of relations between the two countries. In 1947 Iran was the first country to recognize Pakistan after its independence. The two countries were members of the Baghdad Pact known as CENTO which was an alliance against USSR during the cold war era. They along with Turkey formed RCD which later became a larger group known as Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO). The warmth and depth of ties between the two countries can be judged from the fact that during the 1965 war with India, Iran sided with Pakistan. It also helped in putting down insurgency in Balochistan.

However, the events of 1979 including invasion of Afghanistan by Soviet Union and Revolution in Iran, drastically changed the situation in the region as well as within Pakistan that also affected relations between the two countries. Iran though opposed soviet invasion and joined hands with Pakistan in supporting the Afghan Jihad, but it always looked askance at growing influence of Saudi Arabia and US on Pakistan.

The Saudis viewed Iranian revolution as Shia revolt against Sunni Muslims. The US also blamed revolutionary Iran of exporting a belligerent version of religion to the Middle East. The military regime in Pakistan which was looking for legitimacy and longevity readily joined the Saudi-US camp. Pakistan by allowing unhindered and free hand to the Saudis was drawn into violent sectarian conflict that had destabilizing impact on its domestic canvass and still continues to nibble at the national unity. During the conflict between Taliban regime and Northern Alliance in Afghanistan while Pakistan supported the Taliban, Iran along with India assisted the former. So Iran from an ally became an adversary competing for opposing goals in the regional context, straining relations between them. The consequent imposition of sanctions on Iran by the UN on the nuclear issue also limited the scope of trade relations between the two countries. The Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline also became a casualty of tensions between US and Iran and India withdrew from the project under American pressure.

Nevertheless, unlike the military regimes, the representative governments in Pakistan kept the IP project alive and have been striving to remove strains between the two countries. Pakistan rightly refused to be drawn into Saudi-Iranian conflict in Yemen, sectarian crisis in Bahrain and the diplomatic row between the two after the execution of shia religious scholar by Saudi Arabia. It rather preferred to play a mediatory role to lessen the tensions. It is in Pakistan’s utmost interest to remain neutral in any conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Having cordial relations with both of them is imperative for Pakistan to avoid any adverse backlash on the domestic front as well as for boosting the efforts for a sustained economic development which undoubtedly depends on prevalence of peace within the country as well as in the region.

Iran is our immediate neighbour and has been a close ally. It can also help Pakistan in diluting the energy crisis by providing oil, electricity and gas through IP gas pipeline. We also need cooperation of Iran in bringing peace and security to the region, particularly in resolving conflict in Afghanistan and elimination of scourge of terrorism for the collective benefit of the countries of the region. Pakistan has to find a way to circumvent the US pressure and build the IP gas pipeline. It is hoped that Prime Minister’s visit to Iran would help in recalibrating relations between the two counties and bring back the warmth and bonhomie that existed between the two countries before Afghan war. It also fits the new Pakistani narrative of amity with all her neighbours.