Critical developments within the region and the greater Middle East form the backdrop of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s official visit to Iran on May 11 and 12.
Pakistan-Iran relations, long marked by cold formality, were recently jolted out of their stage-managed civility by a series of unusual events. The kidnapping in February of five Iranian border guards by trans-border Sunni militants that straddle Balochistan and Iran’s border province of Sistan-Baluchestan quickly unmasked the underlying tensions brewing between the two countries.
Wider strategic shifts playing out at the regional level intersected with local developments, and reporting on the border incident became overlaid with talk of the growing Saudi-Pak cooperation and Pakistan as a factor in the future security of the Gulf states.
Pakistan’s official, diplomatic support to the Saudi position on the Syrian crisis in February provided more fodder for sensational gossip of secret military pacts. The back-to-back visits of Gulf dignitaries as well as at least five visits by members of the Saudi royal family to Islamabad including the Saudi foreign and deputy defence ministers, culminating in the two-day visit of Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz on Feb 15, created greater optics.
The joint statement issued during the visit of the crown prince unleashed intense speculation regarding the possibility of Pakistan’s security support to the Sunni Gulf sheikhdoms against Iran. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s closeness to Saudi Arabia, where he lived in exile for seven years, was seen as a factor of change, turning around Pakistan’s long-practised policy of non-interference in the internal squabbles of Muslim states.
As tensions flared and Iran threatened to send its forces into Pakistan to retrieve the border guards who had been kidnapped, several observers saw the escalation of tensions in the light of wider sectarian tensions in the region including the Iran-Saudi tussle over Syria, increased sectarian violence in Pakistan and the Middle East and deepening Pak-Saudi security cooperation. Some analysts also attributed the more muscular posturing by the Iranian government, led by newly elected President Hassan Rouhani, to the dramatic thaw and historic U-turn in US-Iran relations over Iran’s nuclear programme.
As the dust settles on the events of February, ahead of Prime Minister Sharif’s visit Pak-Iran relations already appear poised to return to their normal mode of staged cordiality. Most observers see the trip as an opportunity for both countries to step back from the recent strains. Both sides have since taken steps to control the damage.
During the visit last week of the Iranian interior minister, Pakistan and Iran agreed on several measures related to security, cross-border terrorism, smuggling, human trafficking, greater intelligence-sharing, cooperation between security forces and economic relations. The two sides also agreed on installing hotlines between the Frontier Corps and Iranian officials to resolve border- and security-related issues.
The face-to-face meeting between Mr Sharif and Mr Rouhani is also an opportunity for Pakistan and Iran to find creative ways to deal with the impasse over the IP pipeline. Pakistan is expected to pay heavy penalties by the end of 2014 due to non-compliance with the timeline of the project, unless Iran agrees to waive them. The visit is also likely to provide an opportunity for both important regional players in Afghanistan to sound out each other’s position on post-election developments and the post-2014 Afghanistan situation.
High-profile head-of-state visits have long been part and parcel of the Pakistan-Iran diplomatic tango and have been used to smoothen out fragile relations and maintain the status quo. The prime minister’s upcoming visit will likely fulfil all the usual expectations. Pakistan’s strategic view, however, of its important neighbour remains tied to narrow old frames of competing interests in Afghanistan during the 1990s. Its view of its own geopolitical place in the neighbourhood and the wider region similarly remains myopic and tactical.
Whereas the other smaller Sunni countries in the region such as Oman and the UAE learn to negotiate their multilayered links with Saudi Arabia and Iran, Pakistan finds itself unable to clearly negotiate or maintain a pragmatic balance between its geopolitical strengths and relations with its long-term strategic partners. Pakistan need not be apologetic about its long-term commitment to the integrity and security of Saudi and the Gulf states. Such a commitment, however, must be balanced by fully leveraging its geopolitical realities and expanding its economic, trade and infrastructural connectivity across its land borders, both with Iran and India.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Islamabad Policy Research Institute and former Pakistan scholar Woodrow Wilson Center.