A VIOLENT boundary incident with the potential to push already tense bilateral relations into further tumult, the fallout from the killing of Iranian border guards in an attack last week appears to have been handled diplomatically by both sides. In an unscheduled, day-long trip to Islamabad, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif met the top political and military leaders in the country on Wednesday. Following meetings with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa and Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan, the Iranian foreign minister appears to have received a number of assurances from Pakistan that the state is both willing and able to address Iran’s security concerns. To be sure, the long, remote and sparsely populated border with Iran poses a number of problems for both sides. Over the years, both Pakistan and Iran have urged the other to do more to secure the frontier, curb smuggling and human trafficking, and crack down on dissidents operating on either side of the border. But the 11 deaths in an attack last week by Jaishul Adl, a Sunni militant group active in Sistan-Baluchistan, Iran, was both a particularly serious incident and took place at a time of heightened Pak-Iran tensions.
The decision by Pakistan to formally participate in the Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance, allow former army chief Gen Raheel Sharif to lead the IMA and revisit allegations of Iranian interference in Balochistan following the conviction of Indian spy Kulbhushan Jadhav appears to have contributed to a fierce initial response by Iran after the Jaishul Adl attack. Diplomacy, however, appears to have prevailed and the credit must go to both sides. Unlike Afghanistan and India, Iran expressed its concerns through diplomatic channels and demonstrated it was willing to follow up with meaningful interactions. Where Afghanistan and India have acted petulantly and refused to talk to Pakistan, the Iranians quickly sent a high-level delegation led by its globally respected foreign minister. A full day of meetings yielded a clear set of understandings for both sides and cooperative solutions in the form of better border coordination and an increase in the strength of border forces by Pakistan. Moreover, the meetings were an opportunity for Pakistan to allay Iranian concerns about the IMA. Neither the border problems nor the overall strategic concerns will be solved overnight, but it is a welcome sign that Iran and Pakistan have turned to greater diplomatic engagement.
For Pakistan, two things will be of importance. First, when it comes to concerns about foreign interference in Balochistan, the Iranians have shown they are open to diplomatic engagement at the very highest level — Pakistan should do the same. Second, border management should be an ongoing undertaking by both sides and communication channels up and down the chain of command should be kept open. There is simply no alternative to dialogue and diplomacy.
Published in Dawn, May 5th, 2017