Analysis: Pakistan and Iran: Friends or foes?

Updated 30 Mar 2014

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File photo
File photo

AS Pakistan and Iran squabble over the fate of the latter’s recently abducted border guards, Islamabad’s security establishment is confronted with an almost nightmarish question.

Following Iran’s claims that the kidnapped guards were brought to Pakistan, does Islamabad face the deeply troubling possibility of its only secure frontier with Iran joining the ranks of other frontlines which remain insecure? The answer to that riddle may set the pace for a key foreign relationship and perhaps provide a sense on future internal security trends.

Historically, Pakistan has always looked upon its 1,200km frontier with Iran with a sense of relative comfort, notwithstanding Islamabad’s repeated and heavy confrontation with separatists in Balochistan.

Under Iran’s former Pahlavi dynasty, swept away by the Islamic revolution of 1979, Iranian helicopter gunships joined the Pakistan Army’s attacks against separatists holed up in remote parts of Balochistan’s treacherous terrain.

To date, it is the only known example of a foreign military force coming to join Pakistan’s internal battle against separatists, and that too during the depressing days after the fall of Dhaka. That Iranian gesture paved the way for Pakistan’s military victory over Baloch separatists and helped to keep the country’s former western half together.

In sharp contrast to the comfort of yesteryear surrounding the Iranian border, Pakistan’s eastern frontline and a maritime southern boundary are both surrounded by India’s considerably larger land and naval presence. Additionally, Pakistan is forced to maintain a constant watch on its northern frontlines with Afghanistan and India — barring a slice of land with China being the only comfort zone in the Himalayas.

It is therefore hardly surprising that Dr Abdul Malik Baloch, the chief minister of Balochistan, considers “any deterioration in our relations with Iran as a matter of major concern”. Dr Baloch, a veteran politician who spoke this week to this writer, has good reason to be worried.

Provincial officials in Quetta speak of at least a couple of instances every month when Iranian border forces fire a few rockets in Pakistan’s territory — ostensibly to target Iran’s opponents who the Iranians say operate from Pakistan’s soil in Balochistan. While Islamabad denies the presence of abducted Iranian guards on its soil, Pakistan’s position is no better than semi-tenable. Reports of an emotional backlash across Iran over the abduction of the guards have coincided with unconfirmed reports of Iranian forces under orders to strike at will inside Pakistan’s territory if they find proof of anti-Iran hardcore members on Pakistan’s soil. Even if such orders never translate into reality, Tehran’s mere decision to reach such a conclusion must trouble decision-makers in Islamabad.

At the same time, just as it takes two to tango, Iran cannot justifiably hold only Pakistan responsible for its sliding security conditions. A number of reports from Iran’s Sistan-Baluchestan province on Pakistan’s border speak of unsettled conditions on the Iranian side of the border.

Clearly, Shia-majority Iran is yet to bring peace to a part of its own country where the majority are Sunnis, in contrast to the majority of Iranians being Shias. The dwellers of Sistan-Baluchestan clearly feel left out of the Iranian mainstream and need to be pacified.

Ultimately, however, Pakistan can ill afford an aimless new confrontation on its only secure border which may one day demand the deployment of more forces on the frontlines, as if Pakistan’s forces weren’t already over-stretched. The reported killing of one of the border guards has not helped to pacify the strains.

These tensions have coincided with recent reports of Pakistan’s discussions with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to dispatch uniformed or formerly uniformed troops to help the two states meet their security challenges. Notwithstanding Finance Minister Ishaq Dar’s refusal to name the ‘friendly country’ which recently gave a staggering $1.5 billion to fill Pakistan’s depleting coffers, an overwhelming number of Pakistanis believe that the funds came from Saudi Arabia. While Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government insists that it is not about to dispatch troops to serve on a foreign soil, scepticism is visible all around.

Against this background, relations with Iran need to be put through a firm salvage operation. Mr Sharif’s government must try to be equidistant from Riyadh and Tehran as a matter of top priority for Pakistan’s foreign policy. A gesture such as a high-profile visit to Tehran by the prime minister could help build up a more positive image around this relationship than the present one.

Known security commentators such as retired Lieutenant General Abdul Qayyum even go as far as suggesting that Pakistan must “try to bridge the gap between Saudi Arabia and Iran. That would be a great service”.

While breaking the ice between Riyadh and Tehran could be far-fetched, Pakistan could at least work more aggressively to protect its very obvious interests.

In Quetta, a particularly telling example of the bloodshed that has engulfed Pakistan lies no further than the ‘Behesht-i-Zainab’ graveyard, the main final resting place for members of the mostly Hazara community of Shias in that region who were killed in sectarian violence.

Once a large sprawling stretch of land, the graveyard has begun to shrink in size with the growing demand for graves. Iran has protested sectarian killings in the past, though this is a matter which must become central to a narrative by Islamabad for securing its own interests.

In the words of a notable leader of the Hazara community, “You have to live our ordeal to know what it’s like. There are mohallahs [neighbourhoods] where someone has been martyred from every second or third home.”

Mr Baloch believes that ending the radicalization that has evolved in Pakistan over the past three decades and threatens to break the country apart, requires long overdue social reforms. Clearly, this is the vital domestic policy angle which must be followed in tandem with the country’s foreign relations, especially given that the growing number of Pakistan’s radicalised youth will only reinforce the country’s image as a haven for terrorists. While setting the pace for a more cordial relationship with Iran is vital for Pakistan in the short term, the long-term stability of this country must depend on tackling radical trends through sustainable policies.

Farhan Bokhari is an Islamabad-based journalist who writes on politics, economy and security issues