THOUGH historical, cultural, geographic and religious bonds link Pakistan and Iran, geopolitics has prevented the bilateral relationship from reaching its full potential. This has especially been the case in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and the tectonic shifts that have shook the region thereafter.

While Pakistan has tried to strike a balance, its attempts to improve relations with Iran have been hobbled by more hawkish US administrations, as well as some of this country’s Arab ‘friends’. However, under the PTI’s watch there has been a visible attempt to enhance bilateral ties, with high-level visits by civil and military leaders from both sides occurring with some frequency. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s recent trip to Islamabad was the latest in this series of attempts to take ties to the next level.

The Iranian foreign minister’s exchanges with Pakistani officials centred on trade and security — two sectors that have dominated the relationship. It was agreed to open a new border point for bilateral trade, while border security issues also came under discussion. Dr Zarif met the prime minister as well as the army chief during his two-day visit.

The Iranian official’s visit, even if it was pre-planned, comes at an interesting time where global politics is concerned. In the US, an administration openly hostile to Iran is due to make way for what could be a more accommodating set-up. Moreover, with Israel’s overtures to the Arabs, the situation is quickly changing in the Gulf. Having considered all these developments, Islamabad must chart a relationship with Tehran that is mutually beneficial, and based on the interests of Pakistan first and foremost.

It must be communicated to our foreign friends — specifically in Washington and the Gulf sheikhdoms —that while this country values these relationships, Iran is a neighbour and Pakistan has every right to improve relations with it. This, of course, is easier said than done. But if the Biden administration is sincere about reopening channels with Iran, it should understand Pakistan’s position and not create any hurdles in this country’s relationship with Iran.

Along with improving trade relations, progress on the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline would also help enhance confidence. While the Iranian side has completed its share of work on the project, Pakistan has not been able to honour its commitments, primarily due to the threat of American sanctions. This issue must be included in Pakistan’s foreign policy agenda when dialogue opens with the Biden administration.

Moreover, there is the sensitive issue of kidnappings of Iranian security personnel, allegedly by militants operating in the border area. Pakistan’s security forces have cooperated to help recover a number of Iranian personnel, and such combined efforts must continue to eliminate the irritants creating mistrust between both countries. Pakistan’s policy, as stated by the prime minister, is one seeking regional peace, and with some effort relations with Iran can be improved greatly.

Published in Dawn, November 13th, 2020

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