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A fruitless visit

May 14, 2014

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BESIDES the reiteration of fraternal sentiments and an expression of wishes for closer ties, the prime minister’s two-day visit to Iran produced little of substance. The greatest disappointment was over the gas pipeline project. No joint statement was issued, and all that we have is the signing of eight memoranda of understanding on subjects such as the extradition of prisoners. The only reference to the gas pipeline was spiritual leader Ali Khamenei’s emphasis on going ahead with bilateral projects, including the pipeline. As was expected, the ayatollah minced no words, and blamed America and “other countries” for trying to create a rift between his country and Pakistan. That the ayatollah thought Pakistan had succumbed to US pressure was discernible when he asked Mr Nawaz Sharif not to wait for “permission” from other governments to encourage relations between Iran and Pakistan.

Conceived more than two decades ago, the gas pipeline has yet to see the light of day. Initially, the pipeline was to carry gas across Pakistan to India, but New Delhi pulled out of the project in 2009, delivering a blow from which the project has not yet recovered, even though energy-starved Pakistan needs gas desperately. In March 2013, the project aroused optimism when then presidents Asif Ali Zardari and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad inaugurated the construction of the Pakistani part of the pipeline. But again the project ran into difficulties, largely because Islamabad gave in to pressure. A new chapter appeared to be beginning in relations between the two neighbours when Mr Sharif declared after becoming prime minister in June 2013 that the project was on and was likely to be completed by the end of 2014. That has not happened, and as the outcome of his Iran visit shows, we should perhaps sing a requiem for the project.

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to think of Iran-Pakistan relations solely in terms of the pipeline. As neighbours, the two countries have common concerns and need to deepen understanding on such issues as post-America Afghanistan, the change in the Middle East’s power equilibrium in the wake of the Tehran-Washington thaw, the strategic relations developing between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the Syrian civil war, terrorist groups’ activities on the borders, and bilateral trade, which has plummeted to $1bn because of US-led sanctions against Iran. Islamabad must assure Tehran that relations with no state will be at Iran’s expense, and that it will pursue a policy of non-interference in other countries’ affairs — a point emphasised by Mr Sharif when he recently addressed Pakistani envoys in the Middle East. This policy must be pursued in earnest and in a manner that satisfies Iran without jeopardising Pakistan’s ties with the Gulf monarchies, especially Saudi Arabia. The two governments must also think deeply about the kind of measures needed to increase bilateral trade.