Pak-Iran tensions

Published May 10, 2017

A WEEK after Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif visited Pakistan and appeared to have helped re-establish diplomatic and security cooperation between the two countries over border management, the top Iranian military commander has threatened to launch cross-border attacks inside Pakistan against so-called militant safe havens. Maj-Gen Mohammad Baqeri’s extraordinary comments have elicited a sharp reaction from Islamabad and yesterday’s summoning to the Foreign Office of Iranian Ambassador Mehdi Honardoost may be the start of a fresh series of accusations and recriminations between the two countries. It is not yet clear if the proposals agreed upon during Mr Zarif’s visit have been implemented — both sides had agreed to ramp up border cooperation while Pakistan has pledged to send more troops to the boundary to help fight cross-border smuggling, crime and militancy. What is clear is that Maj-Gen Baqeri’s comments are utterly unacceptable.

The general was elevated to the highest military post in Iran last June, replacing a general who had held the post for 27 years, and is believed to have been picked by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for his hard-line background at a time when the Iranian armed forces appear to have a growing say in national security policy. It is, therefore, not possible to dismiss his comments as that of a military commander lashing out after his forces suffered casualties in a border attack. For Pakistan, the path forward must emphasise two aspects of the bilateral relationship. First, Pakistan has an inherent interest in a stable and peaceful relationship with Iran and a violence-free border. Over the years, both sides have built up a number of complaints, mostly as a result of the border between the two countries being a vast, poorly governed space with local populations often at odds with their respective states and other countries having an obvious interest in interfering on both sides of the frontier. However, despite the occasional incident, the Pak-Iran relationship has never been as troubled as Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan and India or the Line of Control in Kashmir. Surely, then, both Pakistan and Iran can find ways to cooperate over border management and curb incidents of violence.

Second, Pakistan and Iran need to have sustained diplomatic engagement to address the range of issues that could be causing friction. From the Kulbhushan Jadhav incident to Pakistan’s participation in the Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance to helping stabilise an increasingly precarious Afghan state, there is much that needs to be addressed by both sides. Moreover, long-term projects, such as the Pak-Iran pipeline or electricity transfers, offer the opportunity to bring economic stability to a tense security relationship. Indeed, if truly creative solutions are wanted, the ports in Chabahar and Gwadar could greatly complement one another. Surely, whatever the path chosen, it must lead to stable, productive ties.

Published in Dawn, May 10th, 2017

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