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Winds of change?

Updated September 14, 2017

US PRESIDENT Trump’s and Secretary of State Tillerson’s recent diatribes against Pakistan must have taken Islamabad by surprise. Lavishing praise on India for its recent attempts to further entrench itself in Afghanistan, Trump encouraged Delhi to get closer to Kabul.

There is no doubt that the current US administration has openly courted India, looking the other way when India intensified its aggression in occupied Kashmir or when it was caught indulging in subversive activity on Pakistan’s western frontier. While Trump is notorious for his impetuosity regarding Pakistan — and South Asia in general — it seems he is announcing a noticeable change in US foreign policy because of shifting geopolitical imperatives.

In recent times, India has strengthened its ties with the US and Israel, evident from recent visits to both by Prime Minister Modi, where he managed to secure strong economic and security arrangements. A new strategic alliance between these hawkish regimes risks conflating the Middle East’s bloody politics with that of South Asia.

Today Pakistan is far less reliant on US aid than it has been historically, and continues to distance itself diplomatically from America. At the same time, it maintains close ties with China and Turkey. In order to shore up its position in the region, Pakistan must also proactively reach out to Iran and Russia.

Iran is of particular significance: keenly interested in improving trade and security contacts with Pakistan, Iran is also closely aligned with Russia and can help draw it towards Pakistan. Iran, like Pakistan, also houses millions of Afghan refugees and, in this regard, faces similar challenges. Iran’s ties with China are also robust, with Iran looking to also benefit from CPEC. Importantly, Iran would strongly benefit from a developed and stable Balochistan fully integrated into Pakistan, because unrest there fans insurgency and terrorism within Iran’s Sistan-Baluchestan province.

Iran has traditionally been an Indian ally. This is partially because of Cold War politics and partially because Pakistan has historically aligned itself with Riyadh, Iran’s political nemesis.

Pakistan must proactively reach out to Iran.

But the winds of change are blowing: when Trump rebuked Pakistan over claims that the latter supports non-state actors engaged in the Afghan conflict — ironically the US openly supports armed militias in Syria — Iran came to Pakistan’s support, even as the latter’s Arab allies remained silent.

Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi heaped scathing criticism on the US, condemning it for lashing out at Pakistan. Subsequently, Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif travelled to Tehran and held detailed meetings with Foreign Minister Zarif and President Rouhani to strengthen bilateral cooperation and discuss regional security, including efforts for peace and stability in Afghanistan.

In recent times, Iran has also become more receptive to the Kashmir dispute and the political discourse on foreign ties reflects this fact. On June 26, 2017, during his national Eid address, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, while deliberating on the “wounds inflicted upon the Islamic ummah”, called upon the Muslim world to support the Kashmiris and not condone atrocities committed by ‘oppressors’ attacking them.

Then again on July 3, 2017, during a meeting with Iran’s chief justice, the ayatollah called on the Iranian judiciary to express support for the Kashmir cause, advising it to develop supportive legal positions for the Kashmiris. Iran’s foreign ministry has also voiced its concern over the recent killings of Kashmiri civilians by Indian armed forces in Kashmir.

Significantly, some high-ranking Iranian parliamentarians have also criticised Mr Zarif over his office’s failure to clarify its position on Kashmir. One of them has demanded that the government should rebuke the Indian government over the crimes it is committing against the Kashmiris. In this regard, he has cited Article 3 (16), Article 152 and Article 154 of Iran’s constitution, under which Iranian foreign policy is required to be set and formulated for the defence of all Muslims and peoples facing oppression. These laws require a strict commitment by the government to fighting oppression and aiding the oppressed in securing equal protection, freedom and justice.

Pakistan’s foreign policy experts and decision makers are generally unaware of these or other politico-legal developments within Iran because interaction and discourse between the two nations is relatively limited. Given the shifting geopolitics within the region, Pakistan cannot afford to alienate friendly nations in South Asia — especially those that are being supportive. Pakistan must revaluate and redefine its geostrategic space, and begin by developing and improving social, political, economic and cultural ties with Iran.

Sikander Ahmed Shah is former legal adviser to Pakistan’s foreign affairs ministry and faculty at Lums School of Law.

Mojtaba Momeni is a journalist based in Tehran.

Published in Dawn, September 14th, 2017