TEHRAN: Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (right) meets Prime Minister Imran Khan on Monday. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is also seen.—AFP
TEHRAN: Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (right) meets Prime Minister Imran Khan on Monday. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is also seen.—AFP

ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Imran Khan on Monday took an unprecedented, albeit bold, step to infuse much-needed trust into the bilateral relationship with Iran by publicly acknowledging that terrorists had in the past misused Pakistani territory to undertake attacks against Iran.

The two countries agreed to the setting up of a joint rapid reaction force for curbing activities of terrorist groups along the 950km porous border. Pakistan further promised to proscribe groups carrying out attacks against Iran, including the Jaish ul-Adl and the Lashkar-e-Khorasan.

Speaking at a joint press conference with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani after their bilateral talks, Prime Minister Imran Khan said: “I know Iran has suffered from terrorism [perpetrated] by groups operating from Pakistan. …we [need to] have trust in each other that both countries will not allow any terrorist activity from their soil. We hope this will build confidence between us.”

Security was at the top of PM Khan’s agenda during his two-day visit to Iran. Mr Khan, at the start of his presser, noted that he had undertaken the trip and brought Inter-Services Intelligence chief Lt Gen Asim Munir along with him whilst realising that terrorism was becoming a divisive issue between the two countries.

The relationship, long marred by distrust due to the actions of terrorist groups operating in the border region, nosedived last month after an attack on an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps bus in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchestan province. The slide was halted after Mr Khan spoke to Mr Rouhani over the phone on March 9 and reaffirmed Pakistan’s commitment to security cooperation. More recently, Pakistan has alleged that Iran-based Baloch terrorist groups killed 14 security personnel who had been travelling on the Makran Coastal Highway.

Islamabad, Tehran to set up border ‘reaction force’

Emphasising mutual trust, PM Khan said that the two countries have to reach a point where “we have complete confidence in each other that we will not allow damage to your country from our soil.”

Speaking on the occasion, President Rouhani recalled recent tensions, and said that during the talks Pakistan had agreed to proscribe terrorist groups involved in terrorism against Iran. He added that both countries were looking to strengthen border security and had agreed to establish a ‘joint rapid reaction force’ for border areas.

This would be in addition to an elaborate border security mechanism already agreed upon between the two countries, including coordinated border patrolling and heightened surveillance.

The ISI chief later held detailed discussions with his Iranian counterpart on security cooperation.

The resolve shown by PM Khan and President Rouhani to deal with security threats was, however, not reflected in the statement issued at the conclusion of visit. The statement merely said: “Bilaterally, the two sides exchanged views on issues related to Pakistan-Iran border security.” Addi­tionally, the statement said that the High Border Commission, that discusses border issues, would meet in May and the Security Committee will meet in Islamabad in June.

TRADE: The two sides held in-depth discussions on improving bilateral trade figures. PM Khan’s delegation included Adviser on Commerce Abdul Razaq Dawood. Trade between the two sides has been restricted by US sanctions against Iran and non-tariff barriers.

President Rouhani said that there was great potential for bilateral trade and the two sides agreed to expand trade ties. “Both sides listed their capacities,” he said.

Iran offered to meet Pakistan’s energy needs in terms of oil and gas and reiterated its readiness to complete the long-delayed Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline. “We are ready to the increase export of electricity by 10 times,” the Iranian president further said.

The two sides looked at devising ways for barter trade, too. Mr Rouhani said there had been an agreement on setting up barter markets and maintaining barter accounts.

The discussion on increasing trade occurred even as the US further tightened sanctions against Iran by revoking oil import waivers that it had granted to a few countries.

PM Khan said that improved trade ties will benefit both countries.

Speaking at a meeting with businessmen, he said it was time to expand trade ties and ways and means for that were being worked out. “We are doing everything to strengthen ties and expand trade,” the prime minister said.

The joint statement said that the two sides exchanged views about “overcoming hindrances in the promotion of bilateral trade and economic activity; the opening of new border crossing points; the establishment of new border markets; and enhancing cooperation in energy.” It noted that there was agreement on convening the 21st round of the Joint Economic Commission in Islamabad in the second half of 2019; holding the next meeting of Joint Committee on Trade in Islamabad in the first week of July 2019; and the early opening of new crossing points at Gabd-Reemdan and Mand-Pishin. The opening of new border markets would, moreover, be discussed during the meeting of High Border Commission.

REGIONAL ISSUES: Mr Rouhani, while sharing details of the discussion on regional issues, said that Mr Khan had reassured him that Pakistan will not become part of any military coalition.

It should be recalled that Pakistan is currently part of the Saudi-led Islamic Military Counter-Terrorism Coalition, which is believed to be an anti-Iran military alliance. Pakistan’s former army chief retired Gen Raheel Sharif is commanding the coalition.

The Iranian president renewed his government’s interest in train link between Islamabad, Tehran, and Istanbul.

PM Khan said that it was in the interest of both Pakistan and Iran to cooperate for peace in Afghanistan. He also criticised US policies towards Israel and India’s brutal repression of the uprising in India-held Kashmir. The prime minister concluded his trip with a meeting with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and paying homage at the mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Published in Dawn, April 23rd, 2019