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Diplomatic turnaround in Pak-Iran relations

Col Ikram Ullah Khan

Col (r) Ikram Ullah Khan 

In an auspicious turn of events,  relations between Iran and Pakistan, the two key neighbouring countries of the South-Asian region, have turned for the better after having remained sour and lacklustre, and having witnessed ups and downs during the past few years due to myriad reasons, the most prominent among them being Pak-Saudi close ties and Pak-US strategic relations, with Iran taking both of these with a pinch of salt for understandable reasons. 

Today, in my deliberation that ensues, I would focus only on four major factors leaving aside rest of the factors due to fear of prolixity. These four factors have primarily been responsible for the quasi-frigid bilateral relations between the two countries. 

As mentioned above, the Saudi and US factors have remained the major stumbling block in the way of good relations between the two Muslim neighbours. It had placed Pakistan in a paradoxical diplomatic situation because for Iran, Pakistan’s maintaining friendly relations with Saudi Arabia and America meant hostility with Iran and vice versa. 

Firstly, Pak-Saudi deep relations are not taken well by Iran. Although, Pakistan has been making earnest efforts to remove Iran’s apprehensions and misconceptions in this regard but to no avail. Pakistan has also been trying to end the chronic hostility between Iran and Saudi Arabia and bring them close to each other but couldn’t succeed due to the deep-rooted suspicion and hatred the two countries have been harbouring against each other over the past several years which hit the pinnacle after Saudi Arabia invaded Yemen in March 2015 and blamed Iran for supporting Houthi rebels which resulted in severance of diplomatic ties between the two countries, and also due to the jaundiced view Iran has been fostering vis-a-vis Pakistan for having deep inclination towards Saudi Arabia. In response, Iran showed inclination towards India and informally aligned itself with it.   

The main purpose of Pakistan’s efforts to bring Saudi Arabia and Iran close to each other ending their mutual hostility as mentioned earlier, has been to remove Iran’s apprehensions and misconceptions about Pakistan and pave the way for improving its relations with its neighbour sharing a long porous border with Pakistan. However, the relations are currently proceeding in a positive direction and a perceptible improvement in this regard is seen. 

Secondly, Iran views Pak-US strategic relations as an stumbling block in the way of warm relationship between the two neighbours. Iran believes that Pak-Iran gas pipeline mega project that entails billions of dollars investment remained in limbo and couldn’t take off due to the pressure the US exerts over Pakistan because the US doesn’t want to give any financial space to Iran and wants to punish it through economic sanctions. 

Thirdly, centrifugal forces/outfits like Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) and Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) allegedly operating from Iranian soil against Pakistan are covertly supported and funded by India, though Iran has been denying any such activity from its soil. 

Fourthly, the Indian factor. India doesn’t want friendly relationship between Pakistan and Iran for obvious reasons. In this regard, India, as mentioned above, has been supporting and funding centrifugal forces and launching them to operate against Pakistan allegedly using Iranian soil. Besides, as a strategic balancing and in order to counter China’s massive investment in Gawadar port, India has invested billions of dollars to develop Chabahar port located in Iran’s Chabahar city in south-eastern Sistan province in response to Pakistan’s Gawadar port, though Indian investment seems to have bitten the dust and couldn’t take off when compared with Gawadar port which has been developed and is going to be operational very soon. 

All said and done, two major factors have made the recent turnaround of Pak-Iran relations possible. 

Firstly, Chinese President’s crucial visit to Saudi Arabia in December 2022 and Iranian President Syed Ibrahim Raisi’s subsequent visit to Beijing in February this year on the invitation of Chinese President bolstered by active diplomatic efforts undertaken by Chinese foreign ministry to broker a truce between Iran and Saudi Arabia that have borne fruit and have brought about a thaw between the two countries that led to resumption of diplomatic ties between them after seven years. Pakistan reportedly played a vital role in involving China to end hostility between the two countries and re-establish diplomatic ties. 

Secondly, the Russia-Ukraine war which has served as a catalyst in bringing improvement in relations between the US and Iran. In fact, Russia-Ukraine war has proved to be a blessing in disguise in this regard. Before Ukraine conflict, the US had been consistently opposing any kind of collaboration between Iran and Pakistan, and actively worked to forestall any joint venture between the two countries as Washington was determined to make Iran a pariah state in the West.  

However, a major shift in US policy vis-a-vis Iran came in the wake of Russia – Ukraine war. Realizing imminent risk of energy crisis affecting the world at large, a change of heart was seen in Washington and it responded positively by re-establishing relations with Iran. This development eased the tension between Pakistan and Iran to a great extent and paved the way for improving mutual relations.  

Quite expectedly, things have started moving in a positive direction after the recent visit of Chief of Army Staff Gen Syed Asif Munir to Iran. This visit marks a watershed moment in the bilateral relations of the two neighbours and heralds a new era in the diplomatic and defence ties between the two countries.

It’s pertinent to mention here that before his first-ever visit to Iran this month after assuming command of Pak army in November 2022, the general had his maiden official visit to Saudi Arabia in January this year. Prior to that, PM Shahbaz Sharif had a positive interaction with Iran’s President Syed Ibrahim Raisi when both met during the joint inauguration ceremony of Mand-Pishin Border Sustenance Marketplace and Polan-Gabd Electricity Transmission Line at Mand-Pishin border crossing point on 18 May 2023. Both these events are favourably seen to have played a positive role in creating an environment that has made a diplomatic turnaround of relations between both the countries possible.  

When the above-mentioned events are connected, the diplomatic turnaround of relations between the two countries becomes crystal clear. 

To sum up: Seasoned retired diplomats and foreign policy analysts are of the view that ground had been prepared for improved relations between the two neighbours by Chinese President’s momentous visit to Saudi Arabia in December 2022 and subsequent visit of Iran’s President Ibrahim Raisi in February this year. However, it’s only after Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Gen Asif Munir’s recent visit to Tehran that the process picked up momentum and relations started assuming a better shape. It’s hoped that the way things are moving forward in a positive direction, soon we feel see a giant leap forward in this regard.

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