Rethinking ties with Iran

Published October 30, 2015

A VISIT by the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran, Ali Shamkhani, to Pakistan has shone a brief spotlight on a common security concern of both countries: the possibility that the self-styled Islamic State has found a toehold in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the region generally, and the commitment to ensuring that IS does not grow into a significant security threat in the area.

In that shared threat may lie the seeds of closer security cooperation between Iran and Pakistan and a greater Iranian role in stabilising and securing Afghanistan — both developments that ought to be welcomed, if handled with care.

Know more: Iran’s role in Afghan talks welcome, says Aziz

Already in Afghanistan there has been a convergence of interests of the Afghan, Pakistani and American governments.

The fear of IS has surely played some role in the serious efforts to find a political solution to the crisis of the Afghan Taliban and the government there. Iran, sharing as it does a border with Afghanistan and long having influence in the country, could be yet another international piece of the jigsaw puzzle that is finding a sustainable peace in Afghanistan.

To the extent that Tehran can be encouraged to participate in and Pakistan can help make space for Iran in the diplomatic push to find a durable peace in Afghanistan, the state here should do whatever it can.

Beyond that there would be need for a fundamental rethink of the relationship with Iran if bilateral trade and investment are to be ramped up and the security relationship expanded beyond historically narrow concerns.

While Mr Shamkhani and his Pakistani hosts stressed that the goal is to widen and deepen overall bilateral ties, Pakistan has largely viewed the Pak-Iran relationship in the context of ties with Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser extent, the US.

Unhappily, despite the US moving towards a thaw with Iran and even inviting it to participate in talks on the future of Syria, the Pakistani state seems to be moving in slow motion when it comes to the fast-changing economic and security climate with regard to our neighbour.

When Iran was eager to supply gas and electricity to Pakistan as it struggled under US-led sanctions, the authorities here appeared to have given too much weight to US concerns and effectively shelved many mutually beneficial economic programmes.

Now, with the US likely to be less forceful about closer ties between Pakistan and Iran, it appears it is the original concern regarding how Saudi Arabia may react that is coming to the fore. While much is made of the PML-N government’s perceived closeness to the Saudi regime, the security establishment in the country too has old and close ties to the regime.

At some point, however, the political government and security establishment may want to consider if global politics is really the zero-sum game that they appear to approach it as.

Published in Dawn, October 30th, 2015

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