Security concerns

Updated April 24, 2019

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PRIME Minister Imran Khan’s statements on Monday at a joint press conference with President Hassan Rouhani during his first visit to Iran are significant for their clarity and forthrightness, even if he was savaged by members of the opposition yesterday for uttering them.

In fact, his remarks have the potential to be a game-changer in a relationship that has seldom been little better than tepid. Mr Khan on the occasion acknowledged that militants have indeed used Pakistan’s soil in the past to carry out attacks in Iran, adding that his government would ban such outfits, including the Jaishul Adl and the Lashkar-i-Khorasan.

Granted there are wider geopolitical issues involved, but his stance has publicly referenced the most immediate impediment to improved ties between Pakistan and Iran — the accusations on both sides that each country harbours militants who launch cross-border attacks against the other.

Last week’s horrific massacre in Balochistan of Pakistani security personnel was carried out by a coalition of Baloch separatist groups that, Pakistan believes, finds shelter in Iran. Earlier this year, a suicide bomber killed 27 members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards in the Sistan-Baluchestan province; the Iranian leadership declared he was Pakistani, as was one of his accomplices.

This blame game, involving India, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan has been a recurrent pattern in the region. However, by conceding that non-state actors based in Pakistan have staged cross-border violence in Iran, Pakistan has shown the way for others to acknowledge that similar violence within its own territory is not entirely homegrown.

The meeting of the ISI chief — who was accompanying the prime minister — with his Iranian counterpart can be seen as a concrete attempt to resolve shared security concerns. Setting up a ‘joint rapid reaction force’ as proposed by both sides will further enhance cooperation on this score and supplement the measures already in place.

As the joint statement at the conclusion of the visit indicates, an improvement in ties could herald many trade and business opportunities, not to mention reinvigorate the long-pending Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline.

This is the right time for the country’s chief executive, clearly on the same page as the military leadership, to articulate a more realistic position vis-à-vis extremist outfits. After all, law-enforcement agencies carried out an unprecedentedly sweeping crackdown only last month against Pakistan-based militant groups including those often named as being involved in cross-border attacks.

Meanwhile, the opposition has pounced on the prime minister’s words as causing the country international embarrassment. While the PPP, given its current tribulations, may have its own axe to grind, the PML-N seemed to have little issue when Nawaz Sharif said much the same as Mr Khan shortly before the 2018 election. One could argue, in fact, that the former premier compounded his travails, perhaps even hastened them, despite his far less categorical take on the subject.

Published in Dawn, April 24th, 2019