ISLAMABAD, Nov 7: In yet another major diplomatic setback for Islamabad in five weeks, Iranian Vice President Ali Saeedlou has cancelled his visit at the eleventh hour in an apparent indication of some underlying unease in bilateral relationship.

The senior Iranian leader, who is also President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s point-man for foreign affairs, was due in Islamabad on Wednesday on a three-day visit for pushing the challenging Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project and other collaborative projects.

In October, Russian President Vladimir Putin had cancelled his visit due to slow progress on major energy and infrastructure projects, including the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline which the Russian energy giant Gazprom is keen to build.

No reason has been officially given for the sudden cancellation of Mr Saeedlou’s trip that came as President Asif Ali Zardari went to Qatar for talks on import of liquefied natural gas via India.

An Iranian official, speaking to Dawn from Tehran, confirmed that the cancellation was from the Iranian side. Though reluctant to disclose specific reasons for the cancellation, he said Tehran found little substance in the visit which could have been beneficial to either side.

“The vice president can’t go to Pakistan for ceremonial purpose,” he said.

A source insisted that the cancellation was prompted by some last-minute development because Mr Saeedlou had completed the preparations for the visit before leaving on a domestic trip that preceded his journey to Pakistan.

Islamabad-Tehran ties lately improved significantly, especially after the arrest of Jundullah leader Abdol Malik Rigi two years ago. His arrest had removed a major irritant in the relationship. The rapprochement that followed was based on Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline and host of other projects, including import of electricity by Pakistan, opening of bank branches in each other’s country and bilateral trade.

Despite a lot of rhetoric which accompanied these projects, there was little progress on the ground.

While progress on commitments made with Iran had been slow, Tehran too has been not too eager to do its part. Iran has been less than keen to buy one million tons of Pakistani wheat which it had agreed to take in exchange for fertiliser and iron ore.

Discussions over wheat barter have remained deadlocked because of the price being demanded and quality of the grain being offered.

A Pakistani official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said security concerns continued to plague the ties despite the virtual elimination of the Jundullah threat. Differences over security issues have been a major source of trust deficit between the two countries.

Pakistan and Iran have also been at cross-purposes in Afghanistan even as they share the objective of having a peaceful and stable Afghanistan. Islamabad has long encouraged Saudi Arabia, a regional rival of Iran, which has been maintaining inconspicuous presence in Afghanistan, to play a dominating role in the war-ravaged country.

Interestingly, the return of frostiness in the Pak-Iran relations comes at a time when Saudi Arabia is readying to re-enter Afghanistan’s public sphere in a big way with multi-million dollar investments.

Iran has also been expressing concern over human trafficking through its territory by Pakistani agents.

An Iranian official, in a more than a candid comment, said all issues aside, some Pakistani officials posted in Tehran were impeding progress in ties.

Neither Foreign Office spokesman Moazzam Khan nor any other foreign ministry official was available for comments.

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