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Iran and Pakistan’s intertwined history

Published Jul 24, 2016 08:05am
Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi of Iran (centre), with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (extreme right) and Begum Nusrat Bhutto (extreme left) in Rawalpindi. — Dawn Library
Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi of Iran (centre), with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (extreme right) and Begum Nusrat Bhutto (extreme left) in Rawalpindi. — Dawn Library

IN the backdrop of the 1971 war with India, and the United States’ arms embargo on Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto wanted to get closer to the American leaders. In a bid, he offered the US the opportunity to establish air and naval bases in Pakistan’s Balochistan province. This offer came when the Shah of Iran had already announced a plan worth $8 billion to create a ‘blue water’ port in Iranian Chabahar, apparently to facilitate large US Navy ships. Of course, Bhutto’s move annoyed the Shah; the Americans were also aware that this meant, in effect, an agreement to supply Islamabad with arms and make Pakistan their regional military anchor.

This context may appear familiar in the ongoing politics of ports in the region where Chabahar and Gwadar are seen as two major determinants of emerging regional politico-economic alliances. But Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, has approached the issue in a slightly different perspective in his book, Iran and Pakistan: Security, Diplomacy and American Influence to explain how Iran and Pakistan vied for American favour and support. However, the recent ports-related developments also reaffirm how fast geopolitical realities change, and also repeat themselves.

The Chabahar port was in fact conceived as an accommodation facility for US Navy ships to create a strategic balance with the Soviet Union and its close ally, India in Southwest Asia. Now India is a major partner in the development of the port. On the other hand, the port at Gwadar, which was once offered to the US, is now being developed by the Chinese. A recent statement in May this year by Mehdi Honerdoost, the Iranian ambassador to Pakistan, made things more interesting by indicating that the Chabahar port agreement between Iran, India and Afghanistan is “not finished” and “not limited” to these three countries. He has revealed that the offer to built Chabahar port had first been extended to Pakistan and China, but neither had expressed interest.


Vatanka charts the trajectory of bilateral relations between Iran and Pakistan, and tries to isolate reasons behind their souring ties


Vatanka has made a great effort to compile the history between Iran and Pakistan as only a few structured accounts are available on the subject. Bilateral relations between Iran and Pakistan have multiple dimensions, which are not only confined to regional and global geostrategic, economic and political realms, but also linked with ideological spectrum making the two countries important players in the Middle Eastern power play. The book addresses most of these aspects. Though it has been written from an American perspective, it is equally useful and valuable for the Iranian and Pakistani contexts.

Vatanka divides bilateral relations between Iran and Pakistan into two phases: the Shah and the post-Shah periods. The Shah period was the most important phase in which the two countries, despite ups and downs, remained important partners in global and regional politics. The US factor was significant which glued both countries to Seato and Cento. The author aptly explains how geography, geopolitics and the US influence brought Tehran and Islamabad closer. During the Cold War era, one of the major factors which kept Pakistan in the US bloc was the influence of the Shah of Iran. Pakistan’s foreign policy constant has been India and this factor decided the country’s relations with the outer world. The Shah knew it.

At the same time, Tehran was a key conduit to the West for Pakistan, and the Shah’s obsession with communism further nurtured their friendship as Vatanka elaborates: “For the Shah, Pakistan over the years morphed into a critical buffer zone, a line of defence against not only the Soviets but also the then Soviet-leaning India.” In the totality of Pakistan-Iran relations over the course of history, most of the credit goes to the Shah of Iran.

Iran’s 1979 revolution however, changed all that and now both countries are still struggling to find common ground to maintain relatively normal bilateral relations.


The Shah of Iran became the first foreign head of state to visit Pakistan in 1950. Warm relations between the two countries started when they signed the friendship treaty in Tehran after two months of the Shah’s visit. This was the beginning of Iran and Pakistan’s intertwined history. Pakistan’s ‘look to Iran’ approach reached a level that the Pakistani parliament sent a request to Tehran for “a book or any papers about [the] constitutional laws of Iran” which Pakistanis could follow as a model. However, despite all these efforts, both countries took eight years to solidify their friendship into concrete initiatives through their border agreement.


Vatanka’s approach to understanding the complex nature of state relations is historical in nature; he sees events and developments in chronological order which provide the basis for his analysis. The book is divided into 10 chapters that explore different Pakistani rulers’ approach to sustaining relations with Iran.

The Shah of Iran became the first foreign head of state to visit Pakistan in 1950. Warm relations between the two countries started when they signed the friendship treaty in Tehran after two months of the Shah’s visit. This was the beginning of Iran and Pakistan’s intertwined history. Pakistan’s ‘look to Iran’ approach reached a level that the Pakistani parliament sent a request to Tehran for “a book or any papers about [the] constitutional laws of Iran” which Pakistanis could follow as a model.

However, despite all these efforts, both countries took eight years to solidify their friendship into concrete initiatives through their border agreement. Both countries signed this on February 6, 1958, and after two years of negotiations, Tehran and Islamabad were finally able to agree on a common border. Vatanka considers it a major achievement as he rightly points out that the agreement has never since been called into question by either side.

It is interesting to note that at one point to strengthen the unity between the two nations, the Shah had proposed the idea of a confederation of Iran and Pakistan with a single army and with him as head of the state. Vatanka argues that though the idea seems bizarre and unworkable, two distinct realities existed at that time that made such an idea less than outlandish. “First, Iran and Pakistan were already members of the budding new organisation Cento. There was already much talk about political, military and economic integration as part of the structures of Cento. Second, the Shah had not envisioned the idea out of the blue. Right next door in the Arab world, four regional countries were at the time already experimenting with political confederations. In 1958, Egypt and Syria agreed on a union, which became known as the United Arab Republic.”

The 1965 war between India and Pakistan however, shattered the Shah’s confidence in Pakistan and afterwards he started looking at Pakistan differently. According to Vatanka, the main fallout from the 1965 conflict was its psychological impact on Iran regarding Pakistan’s worth as a strategic ally; from then on India began to be regarded differently by Tehran with the Shah also gradually adopting a patronising attitude towards Pakistan.

During his reign, the Shah repeatedly came to Pakistan’s rescue, but over the years his doubts about the country kept piling up. Pakistan’s defeat in the 1971 war with India, and the loss of East Pakistan, particularly alarmed the Shah and made him acutely aware of Pakistan’s many predicaments and its colossal needs as Islamabad faced the Soviet-leaning Indians. Vatanka, quoting diplomatic cables, writes that over the next few years the Shah often had the fate of Pakistan as a key item on his foreign policy agenda. He mentions the Shah’s meeting in July 1973 with US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in Washington, DC, in which the Shah categorically said he had informed the Soviet leadership about Iran’s “commitment to Pakistan’s security”. Kissinger was informed that the Shah had told the Indians “that an attack on Pakistan would involve Iran” and that Iran “could not tolerate the (further) disintegration of Pakistan.”

The book also quotes the Shah’s last memoir before he died: “I wanted to take advantage of the presence in Persepolis of then President of Pakistan, Yahya Khan, on the occasion of the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian Empire. I hoped to arrange a meeting between him and the president of the USSR, [Nikolai] Podgorny, and thus to help avert the impending conflict between India and Pakistan over Bangladesh.” The Shah’s efforts however remained fruitless.

The Shah was not happy with Yahya Khan’s approach towards East Pakistan and warned him about the consequences. Though he tried to rescue Pakistan, the breakup of Pakistan disappointed Shah. The further dismemberment of Pakistan was a nightmare for him and he was concerned about the growing activities of the insurgents in Balochistan. As Vatanka puts it: “After 1971, the Shah hinted at the possibility of Iran annexing the Pakistani province of Balochistan if Pakistan was further dismantled due to internal ethnic conflict.”

Afghanistan was another area of common concern between the two countries, especially considering Afghan prime minister, Muhammad Daud Khan’s hard position against Pakistan after his coup 1973. Vatanka states that Pakistan was the only country singled out by Daud in his first statement after the coup. Daud promised friendship but pointed out the issue of Pashtunistan as an unsettled dispute. He also kept provoking the Balochistan issue and insisting that Afghanistan could no longer turn a blind eye to the sufferings of the Baloch.

The Shah conceived that the Soviets were pushing ahead through Kabul an agenda that was ultimately aimed at the creation of Greater Balochistan and the inevitable dismemberment of both Iran and Pakistan. The Shah pursued Pakistan to launch a military operation against the Baloch Liberation Front which was allegedly getting support from Iraq to launch an insurgency in Iran. But the Shah was not happy with Bhutto’s political manoeuvring with nationalist parties in Balochistan; he believed these ‘moderate’ Baloch leaders were linked to the Iraqi arms seizure.

Bhutto’s tilt towards the Arab world also annoyed the Shah. Ziaul Haq also adopted the same approach after efforts towards building trust with Tehran proved futile.

Bhutto played the Arab card very well. Before the Lahore Islamic Summit in 1974, Pakistan had not received direct financial aid from any Arab country; with a single stroke Bhutto changed that fact and Arab oil money started flowing in. This was the time when the romance between Iran and Pakistan went downhill.

The Shah was unclear about Zia’s political ambitions and remained doubtful about his agendas but the Shah advised him to stay in Cento. The April 1978 coup in Kabul changed the regional political dynamics significantly and Zia declared that Afghanistan was no longer a buffer and that Pakistan now shared a common border with the Soviet Union. Though the Shah’s global anti-communist crusade was still alive but there is no evidence of a coordinated Iranian-Pakistani strategy to go after the Afghan communist regime of Nur Muhammad Taraki.

After the Islamic revolution in Iran, Zia saw an opportunity to repair relations with Iran and tried to please the Khomeini camp with his religious credentials but failed to impress them; they continued considering him not as an Islamist but merely as an American pawn. Zia also began taking help from the Shia clergy in Pakistan who had always looked to Tehran for guidance and guardianship.

This was the time when sectarianism had started to become an important determinant of bilateral relations between the two nations. According to Vatanka, however, the Shah never used the sectarian card in state relationships and made no such mention in his memoirs or anywhere else. “Ardeshir Zahedi, twice foreign minister of Iran and a close friend of Mirza, called such insinuations farfetched: ‘The Shia-Sunni divide was not important at the time’.”

Another interesting theme the book discusses is about the connectivity doctrine. Though Vatanka has not touched upon China’s ambitious connectivity plan — One Belt, One Road — he has described the genesis of the connectivity idea. He describes how the Afghan-Pakistan dispute triggered the concept of connecting the region into economic confederations. Iran and the US had pushed the idea to engage Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan in a loose confederation and President Ayub Khan for the first time publically launched the idea in August, 1962. However, after some initial consideration, the US perspective on the notion of a confederation in South-West Asia took a different route, and Turkey was included; Afghanistan however, was excluded from the triangle. This gave birth to the Regional Cooperation for Development (RCD) as part of Cento in July 1964.

The ideas about regional connectivity had strategic importance in a bid to ease tensions through economic connectivity. In 1966, in the backdrop of the war between India and Pakistan, and tense relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan, Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin proposed a regional economic cooperation in the form of an overland trade route between India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Soviet Union. Ayub Khan was cold towards this idea as he did not believe it to be achievable. In 1974, the Shah proposed to include India and Afghanistan in the RCD as it made economic sense, but this was disliked by Islamabad

How the events have been narrated and linked in Iran and Pakistan: Security, Diplomacy and American Influence, increases the worth of the book.

Commendable is how Vatanka has summed up the post-Shah relations between the two countries as follows: “On paper, Iran and Pakistan are engaged in a number of efforts designed to further political and economic integration — from membership in the regional Economic Cooperation Organisation, to a host of bilateral agreements on trade, to security cooperation. There is, however, relatively very little to show for all of this — and depth in the relationship is still missing.”

The reviewer is a security analyst. He is the Director of Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS), Islamabad.

Iran and Pakistan: Security, Diplomacy and American Influence
(foreign affairs)
By Alex Vatanka
I.B. Tauris
ISBN: 9781784532147
304pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 24th, 2016