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Pakistan-Iran relations, long marked by cold formality, were recently jolted out of their stage-managed civility by a series of unusual events. - File photo
Pakistan-Iran relations, long marked by cold formality, were recently jolted out of their stage-managed civility by a series of unusual events. - File photo

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.

Comments (17) Closed

Husain Jan May 10, 2014 07:43am

Since Pakistan has already taken refuge behind sanctions on Iran, it is not likely that it will go ahead with the IP gas pipeline project. It is widely believed that Nawaz Sharif is
under pressure from Saudia and anti-Iran western countries to forget about this project Under the agreement Iran has the right to claim penalty which can easily be arranged / paid by the "friendly Muslim country" which does not want this project to see light of the day. What a way to go for this "friendly" and "Muslim" country !!! Since completion of this project is much more beneficial to its friend - Pakistan- as compared to Iran - the anti project stance is beyond comprehension, and yet it is considered as "friendly".

daar May 10, 2014 09:33am

Pakistan need not be apologetic about its commitment to its own integrity and independence. Security of Saudi, Gulf and Iran is in our own interest however Pakistan's first responsibility is the safety of its own borders and citizens. Pakistan can not afford to provide its own Territory and soul for proxy war of others.Pakistan should strongly condemn ghosts distributing financial arms to sectarian benefactors.

Syed Husain May 10, 2014 09:57am

It serves no purpose for Pakistan to take sides in any disagreement between two Muslim nations and should do whatever it can to have cordial and warm relations with all Muslim countries. It is recognized that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf State have a lot of money, and that the money talks. However, Pakistan can not and should not antagonize Iran and should do whatever it can to maintain warm relations it's neighbor Iran.

Husain Jan May 10, 2014 10:35am

@Syed Husain Yes indeed, it is the money - the petro dollars - that speaks , rather makes lot of noise.....and as always this present set of rulers is also hungry perhaps more than its predecessors.

Hussain May 10, 2014 12:37pm

Its so unfortunate that our foreign policy is driven by individuals, opportunists and people with no self respect and principles. Whether you side this way or that way or middle way, it should be based on core principles (if we are left with some) and long term economic and security needs of Pakistan. We never learn as a nation....

Aziz May 10, 2014 01:21pm

Dr. Simbal Khan very correctly diagnoses the crux of the problem as Pakistan finding " itself unable to clearly negotiate or maintain a pragmatic balance between its geopolitical strengths and relations with its long-term strategic partners."

The mind set should be Just do it- if it is good for Pakistan. We can not face any worse "consequence" than we are already in. Our carefully calibrated options will only result in NEGATIVE OR NIL GROWTH ( in all important sectors). This is exactly the objective of our detractors- under different guises and pretences.

farooq May 10, 2014 01:36pm

Pakistan has been bleeding because of the rubbish "War on Terror". Untrustworthy neighbor on the east side and hostile neighbor on the west. On top of that the government in power wants to take side on a third front, as if all of the other headaches are not enough.

Pakistan must selfishly think and fix itself and get up on the feet, free itself FIRST and FOREMOST.

Muslim May 10, 2014 01:44pm

Iran is powerful country. Joint defense production may give boost to Navy as Iran has indigenous developed destroyers etc .

Akram May 10, 2014 03:09pm

despite my unfavourable views of the current Pakistani government. I have to say Nawaz Sharif is not a fool, I think he realises Pakistan's interests lie in keeping both Saudi Arabia sweet and the Iranians too. The economic corridor he is now pursuing can integrate the IP pipeline and extend it to China, and perhaps in the future sometime even India.

We need to use our heads, and forget getting involved in the disputes of others. We have our own issues that should be taking up our efforts and resources.

sarah hussaini May 10, 2014 05:08pm

pak-Iran need 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.

Yahya May 10, 2014 06:40pm

Both Pakistan and Iran need to understand and focus on the wider regional context in light of the global agenda of extra-regional powers. It is no secret that the agenda of those powers is best served by a frictional and divided regional countries especially Pakistan and Iran. The two countries may have differing understanding of and views on some issues (like Syria) that are least linked directly to our region's strategic interests. So those issues should be placed on the back burner of the agenda of Mr. Sharif's negotiations in Iran. The enemy powers have already created (and successfully used) a deep-rooted terror infrastructure in this region to keep the regional countries at loggerheads and to exploit the situation. The post withdrawal situation in Afghanistan is another vital area that two that countries need to be on the same page. Evil alliances are already in the making with an aim to trap the Afghan people into Taliban and non-Taliban divide and supplying weapons to both sides so that Afghan bloodshed can be perpetuated. That will ultimately drag Iran and Pakistan into that fire too.

iftekharhussain May 10, 2014 08:59pm

Relations in this age? Dude it is money and Saudi Arabia and UAE have spent great sums and given great amounts of petro dollars, what has Iran given? So in this materialistic era, go where the money is.

Zak May 10, 2014 11:40pm

Pakistan is of the level where it is sought to mediate and calm Saudi and Iranian disagreements, in other words a regional power. But alas! We don't have the leaders of that stature who can carry that responsibility.

syed May 11, 2014 04:10am

dr. simbal, a thought provoking article:

  1. saudi arabia and qatar today are leading the anti-shia actions and feelings in pakistan this includes open aid to the fiend-like militants who are slowly but steadily strengthening their tentacles around pakistan
  2. this is counteracted by generous gifts of billions of dollars to the pakistani govt
  3. nawaz sharif's exile in sa for seven years shoud not mean for him to totally become a puppet
  4. iran should exercise the penalty on the pipeline,and let nawaz sharif know that you cannot cut it both ways
  5. iran, like it is doing now, shoud continue a strict check on its borders and take retaliatory action against anyone, including pakistan. If it were to happen that the "crack" pakistan army, even on a small scale, had a confrontaion, let people not be surprised if the iranian forces are as "crack" as anyone else
  6. pakistan's armed forces are brave, trained, and love their country, but pakistani's seem to forget, again and again, that many others in the world are at least as valorous, well-trained, well-equipped and have produced heroes in wars that pakistanis never get to read about
Naeem Sultan Butt May 11, 2014 06:55am

To form one Muslim compact block, starting from coast of the Nile to the lands of Kashgar as conceived by Allama Muhammad Iqbal about a century ago, we must exert all our efforts to narrowing down differences between Shias and Sunnis, which are political and not religious.

afroze fatemah May 11, 2014 04:44pm

A close neighbour is better than a distant relative. Pakistan needs to strengthen her regional relations.

Hamza E May 12, 2014 12:58am

It is in our interest that Iran does not turn nuclear. Thank you.