Iranian President , Dr. Hassan Rouhani’s visit to Pakistan from 25-26 March is a welcome sign that the leaders of the two countries are determined to provide a boost to Pakistan-Iran cooperation in political, economic, commercial and cultural fields, improve border security, join hands in overcoming extremism and terrorism, make an effort to coordinate their Afghanistan policies, and generally strengthen Pakistan-Iran friendship. The visit took place approximately three years after Hassan Rouhani’s election as the President of Iran in 2013. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had visited Tehran twice, in May 2014 and earlier this year in January. During his visit, President Hassan Rouhani held talks with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, President Mamnoon Hussain, and General Raheel Sharif besides addressing a meeting of the Pakistan-Iran Joint Business Forum anda joint news conference with the Prime Minister in Islamabad.

Hassan Rouhani’s visit took place against the background of a slow but steady process of improvement of Pakistan-Iran relations, which had been badly damaged during the 1990’s because of the clash of their Afghanistan policies. It was natural that the bitter memories of the two countries’ confrontation in Afghanistan and the mutual mistrust caused by it would fade away only gradually. It goes to the credit of the leaders on both sides to have realized that the security of Pakistan and Iran is closely “intertwined and interdependent” as the Iranian President put it in his press conference in Islamabad. There are also promising opportunities for strengthening bilateral cooperation in economic, commercial, technical, and cultural fields. The signing of the deal on Iran’s nuclear program and the lifting of the nuclear-related sanctions by the UN Security Council, the US and EU have paved the way for the development of closer economic and commercial ties between Pakistan and Iran. The fact that a 60-member delegation of Iranian businessmen accompanied Hassan Rouhani during his visit to Pakistan shows that Tehran would like both sides to take full advantage of the new opportunities for closer economic cooperation.

The visit resulted in the signing of six MOU’s on promoting bilateral cooperation in various fields. It was decided to increase the annual bilateral trade to $ 5 billion within the next five years. However, this goal is likely to remain a pipedream unless the two governments take specific and well-considered steps to promote bilateral trade. On the Iranian side, this would involve the removal of non-tariff barriers on trade with Pakistan, particularly those involving Pakistani textiles, rice, fruit and other agricultural products, and the lowering of tariffs.

Pakistan would have to make a special effort to resume and increase the purchase of crude oil from Iran. Hopefully, the discussion of the issue of enhancing the connectivity between Gawadar and Chabahar ports through rail, road and shipping links during the visit would also help in promoting trade between the two countries and enabling the two ports to complement each other.

The completion and operationalization of Pakistan-Iran gas pipeline would be the most important step that the two countries can take for the development of their economic ties. Hassan Rouhani pointed out that the pipeline was almost complete on the Iranian side. It is now for the government of Pakistan to fulfill its part of the deal so that the pipeline can be operationalized as soon as possible, thus, going a long way towards meeting our fast growing requirements for natural gas. We should go even further and link the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects, which might facilitate the export of the Iranian gas to China through Pakistan and make Pakistan the hub of the regional trade and energy corridors. Pakistan can also import electricity from Iran to overcome its power shortage especially in Balochistan. Hassan Rouhani offered to export up to 3000 mw of electricity to Pakistan which is already importing about 100 mw of electricity from Iran for meeting the requirements of its border areas.

The Iranian President also exchanged views with PM Nawaz Sharif on the Afghan peace process during the visit. The Iranian side agreed to the Pakistani proposal for trilateral talks among Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan on the issue. This was an important development considering the damage that the differences of their Afghanistan policies had inflicted on Pakistan-Iran relations before 9/11. Further, considering the long border that Iran has with Afghanistan and its deep historical and cultural links with the latter, the coordination of the Afghanistan policies of Pakistan and Iran is an indispensable condition for the success of the Afghan peace process. The trilateral talks among Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, therefore, must be a regular feature of the efforts for the restoration of durable peace in Afghanistan.

The border security issue has also occasionally been an irritant in Pakistan-Iran relations. Iran complained from time to time in the past, about the terrorist activities in Iranian Balochistan of some criminal gangs operating from Pakistani Balochistan. It has been alleged by Iran that these gangs had the support of some non-regional intelligence agencies. More recently, Pakistan has expressed its uneasiness about the terrorist activities in Pakistani Balochistan and Karachi, inspired and supported by RAW agents who were operating from the Iranian Balochistan. Obviously, there are forces which in pursuit of their own nefarious designs wish to damage friendly relations between Pakistan and Iran. The two governments should not allow these efforts to succeed and should take all possible steps to ensure the security of their common border in the interest of promoting border trade and people-to-people contacts. It was, therefore, reassuring that the two governments publicly declared their intention to take necessary steps for strengthening the common border security.

The disturbing situation in the Middle East, especially in Syria and Iraq, and the issues of extremism and terrorism also came up for discussion during Hassan Rouhani’s visit to Islamabad. One should welcome the agreement between Pakistan and Iran to cooperate with each other in fighting extremism and terrorism. As for Saudi-Iranian relations, in January this year Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif paid visits to Riyadh and Tehran in an effort to defuse tensions between the two brotherly countries and promote mutual understanding between them.

Considering the complexity of the issues involved and the depth of the misunderstandings and sensitivities on the part of both Iran and Saudi Arabia, Nawaz Sharif’s efforts did not achieve much success. It remains to be seen whether the latest exchange of views between the leaders of Pakistan and Iran would lead to the lessening of tensions between Riyadh and Tehran which is in the best interest of the Muslim Ummah. Hassan Rouhani rightly stressed that Muslim countries should resolve their problems peacefully in the interest of peace, progress and prosperity.

Pakistan-Iran relations, which had reached their nadir in 1990’s because of the differences of the two countries on the Afghanistan issue, are on the mend. Earlier during his visit to Pakistan in April 2001, Hassan Rouhani in his capacity as the Secretary General of the Iranian Supreme National Security Council had played an extremely important role in arresting the deterioration in this relationship in recognition of the reality that Pakistan-Iran friendship is vital for the security and well-being of the two countries. It is befitting that he should again play a constructive role in taking Pakistan-Iran cooperation to new heights through his recent visit. Hopefully, both sides would seize the opportunity provided by the agreements signed and the understandings reached during the visit to provide a new impetus to the development of Pakistan-Iran friendship and cooperation in various fields.