MEHDI Honardoost in reply to a question about Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour said Iran can never allow its territory to be used against Pakistan.
MEHDI Honardoost in reply to a question about Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour said Iran can never allow its territory to be used against Pakistan.

THE Iranian ambassador to Pakistan Mehdi Honardoost has expressed his approval at the direction in which ties between Pakistan and his country are moving following the meeting between Army Chief Gen Qamar Bajwa and President Hassan Rouhani, but emphasised that “time is gold and the movement and action should be faster”.

He also called for broadening the scope of ties to “other areas”, pointing out Iran’s potential to become a major seller of electricity to Pakistan, as well as shipping and aviation.

In a wide-ranging interview with Dawn on Friday, he said improved border management was the top priority in all talks between the two countries. Iran and Pakistan have had a strained relationship on this issue in recent months.

Says Tehran protested to New Delhi over Jadhav

This year alone, Iranian border guards have fired mortar shells into Pakistan on four occasions, prompting strong protests from the Pakistani side. Iran says it targets militants hiding on the Pakistani side of the border in such incidents.

“This was one of the most important items on the agenda during the visit of Gen Bajwa to Iran,” said Mr Honardoost. “As you know, some terrorist groups bypass the border [check posts]. Exactly seven months ago, they attacked some Iranian guards who were on the route of the drug traffickers, killed them all and kidnapped one and brought him back to Pakistani territory.”

His government did not believe that the Pakistani authorities were in any way complicit in such activities, he said, attributing them largely to criminal groups who took advantage of the long and difficult to patrol border.

He bristled at the mention of Kulbhushan Jadhav and Mullah Akhtar Mansour, who was killed in a drone attack shortly after entering Pakistan from Iran.

About Jadhav, he said his government had nothing to do with the Indian spy’s actions, and even formally protested to the Indian authorities about the matter. On Mullah Mansour, he said: “If you look carefully, you will find mischief by some third parties who are unconvinced about any better cooperation between Iran and Pakistan.”

When pressed on how much his government knew about what Mullah Mansour was doing in Iran, the ambassador talked at length about how Iran could never allow its territory to be used against Pakistan. And then he simply asked: “It is better to begin with the question of Mullah Akhtar’s passport, which was issued by which country?”

About the Iran-Pakistan natural gas pipeline, Mr Honardoost said that Pakistan needed to fulfil its obligations under the agreement and complete its portion falling in Pakistani territory.

“We have spent $2 billion to build our portion of the pipeline,” he said.

When told that some people in Pakistan wished to renegotiate the price at which the gas would be purchased, given the price benchmarked by the recent LNG agreements, he said: “This is not the right time to discuss the price. First complete the obligations under the agreement by building the pipeline, then we can talk about the price.”

Pakistan’s relations with Iran have been strained since earlier this year, when retired Gen Raheel Sharif was approved by the government to lead the Saudi Arabia-led military alliance against terrorism and the Foreign Office acknowledged that Pakistan had joined the alliance.

Iran distrusts the alliance, pointing out that the three countries of the Middle East most affected by terrorism — Iran, Iraq and Syria — have not been asked to join it.

In early November, Gen Bajwa visited Tehran and assured President Rouhani that Pakistan was committed to an “enhancement of bilateral ties” with Iran, and that Pakistan’s participation in the Saudi Arabia-led alliance would not affect its relations with Iran.

Days after his return from the neighbouring country, a National Security Council meeting took place, which “reviewed the status of regional gas and oil pipelines… and it was agreed that Pakistan should take advantage of the opportunities available where they are in Pakistan’s best economic and national interest.”

Some observers point to this language as evidence of renewed interest in the Iran-Pakistan pipeline. But it’s carefully constructed ambiguity could point in multiple directions.

The ambassador confirmed that no fresh commitments were given by the Pakistani side in the talks in Tehran regarding the pipeline, and reiterated that the ball was now in Pakistan’s court.

Published in Dawn, December 10th, 2017