Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Tehran has been marred by two recent deadly attacks. Despite an apparent willingness to cooperate, there remains many outside players who will push for this alliance to fail.
Someone clearly hates the idea of peaceful dialogue between Iran and Pakistan. Whether a coincidence or not, the timing of an attack in Pakistan within barely a day or two of a planned visit to Iran’s capital by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan is certainly perfect timing for those who view an increasing relationship between the two nations through negative terms. The attack in question saw at least 14 Pakistani security forces personnel killed in a bus ambush. Not helping the issue, is the fact that Pakistan’s foreign office instantly blamed the attack on Iran, accusing Iran of inaction against ethnic Baloch separatist groups, even as Khan was set to visit Tehran.
In February, there was similarly an attack in eastern Iran that killed at least 27 Iranian security personnel. Tehran warned Islamabad it would “pay a heavy price” for allegedly harboring the militants who planned the suicide bombing, which was claimed by the Pakistan-based Jaish al-Adl group.
Now, I am not saying that there is any conspiracy behind the attacks. I mean, why would I need to bother? Whether there are attacks or not, the media and a handful of notable leaderships will continue to portray Iran-Pakistan relations as the worst possible form of détente imaginable.
All this being said, the two countries were able to have a somewhat fruitful and productive engagement during Khan’s visit. The news that is likely to infuriate some other major players on the world stage is the announcement of a creation of a joint rapid reaction force along the shared border of Iran and Pakistan.
Ironically, the recent attacks against Iranian and Pakistani personnel may have brought these two nations closer together, as Khan announced that Pakistan will not allow any militant groups to operate from Pakistani soil, vowing to dismantle any militant group inside the country.
On a side note, WikiLeaks documents have shown that Saudi Arabia financed militant groups inside Pakistan. Even Deutsche Welle notes that most of the Pakistani based militant groups “unleashing terror” on Pakistan’s minority Shiite population “take inspiration from the hardline Saudi-Wahhabi Islamic ideology”.
Khan’s visit also magically coincided with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s announcement that it was clamping down hard on countries who sought to buy Iranian oil, namely, India, Japan, South Korea, Turkey and of course, China, who account for about half of Iranian oil exports. This would undoubtedly send a clear picture to Pakistan about what will happen if it continues down its current trajectory.
Undeterred, Pakistan and Iran have agreed to establish a so-called barter committee to help in a planned increase in trade, with an eye for bypassing US-enforced sanctions.
Despite the picture the media wants to paint of a hostile Pakistan weary of an aggressive, terrorist-supporting Iran, the truth is that Iran and Pakistan are not really traditionally that adversarial.
Historically speaking, the two countries have had relatively friendly relations. Iran was one of the first countries to recognise and reach out to Pakistan after its creation in 1947. In fact, then-Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was the first head of a foreign nation to visit the newly created country. Iran also provided moral and material support to Pakistan during its infamous conflicts with India in 1965 and 1971.
The countries only really split along a Sunni-Shia divide after the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979. Aside from strengthening its relations with Saudi Arabia, Iran’s major rival, Pakistan also became a major US ally, particularly during the Afghan-Soviet war in the 1980s. Iran then viewed Pakistan as nothing but a lackey state of the United States.
Even though, Khan has made it clear that Pakistan holds no ill will to Iran following the revolution, purportedly stating that “I came here [to Iran] in 1972. I saw a big difference between the rich and the poor, a big cultural difference. Iran has become a more egalitarian society that is what the revolution has done.”
Despite the fact these two countries have many long standing differences and areas of competition, they still have many avenues of cooperation that they have felt the need to pursue.
One such avenue is the question of Afghanistan. For example, India has increased its interest in the war-ravaged nation, which puts Pakistan in a very compromising position indeed given it is essentially on the verge of a major war with its Indian neighbour.
According to Khan, both Pakistan and Iran have been affected by the conflict in Afghanistan, hosting millions of refugees between the two nations.
Iran and Pakistan have also been in the line of fire of Donald Trump’s hawkish administration. While Trump’s desire to annihilate Tehran is much more apparent than any such desire to go to war with Pakistan, we cannot ignore the major blows to US-Pakistan relations that have occurred under the watch of Trump.
The two nations further share close relations with China, the formulation of which has been termed as a trilateral nexus by the Asia Times. Pakistan and Iran also have a pipeline of their own capable of pursuing, which will most likely entail the deepening of cooperation even in spite of their major differences.
Another interesting aspect that comes into play in this dynamic – which I guarantee you, you will never see highlighted in a corporate media outlet – is that Iranian President Rouhani actually enjoys the support of the local ethnic Sunni population of Iran. Therefore, it is not beyond the administration of Rouhani to work more closely with its predominantly Sunni neighbours (if you don’t believe me, I wrote an extensive article highlighting the notable attempts by Iran to reach out to Sunni Saudi Arabia over the last few years).
The major problem that Pakistan faces is that while it can find common ground with Iran, including on matters in relation to economic ties and security, it does not want to irk Saudi Arabia too much, a nation which just pledged $20 billion in investments to Pakistan. Islamabad is likewise not impressed by Iran’s growing relationship with India. This is why Pakistan put itself in a questionable position whereby its former Chief of Army staff was appointed as what is essentially the head of a Saudi-led Arab NATO, which does not include Iran (indeed, it seems as though its existence is based on the idea that it needs to counter Iran).
At the end of the day, the optimist in me reckons that there are enough areas of cooperation between the two countries which can help to balance out the devastating rivalries between Iran and Saudi Arabia and prevent a deadly war. But in all honesty, if you were to compare the outcomes between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) visit to Pakistan and Khan’s visit to Tehran, the latter seems a bit weak in substance. It seems as though no matter how far Iran reaches its hand out to Pakistan, its loyalty to Saudi Arabia will continue to prevail ($20 billion will always be worth more than anything Iran can ever offer to its neighbour). Not to mention the money that Pakistan is offered from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which also views Tehran mostly in hostile terms.
Perhaps Khan can act as a mediator between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but the available evidence suggests there is nothing to mediate. Since 2015, Saudi Arabia has destroyed an entire country on its border simply on the suspicion that Iran could be backing the rebel movement inside Yemen. Even the possibility that a rebel-controlled government installed on its border could align itself with Tehran is a major deal-breaker for the Saudi Kingdom, worth starving over 85,000 children to death and threatening behind closed doors that Yemen should “shiver” for generations when they hear Saudi Arabia uttered.
The optimist in me is going to have to be a bit more realistic.
By Darius Shahtahmasebi