Pak-Iran relations

Published January 14, 2024
The writer is a former foreign secretary of Pakistan and chairman, Sanober Institute, Islamabad.
The writer is a former foreign secretary of Pakistan and chairman, Sanober Institute, Islamabad.

IRAN is a vast country spanning an area more than twice that of Pakistan with a population nearly one third of ours. Rich in natural resources, Iran possesses the second largest gas reserves, fourth largest crude oil reserves and significant non-fuel mineral resources. The people of Iran, called Persia until 1935, are deeply proud of their history, culture and language.

Historically, Iran is an ancient land, with recorded history dating back to 550 BCE, when Cyrus founded the first Persian empire, the Achaemenid, the fourth king of which, Darius, expanded the borders of the empire to include territories from Anatolia to the River Indus. The Sassanid empire ruled Persia for nearly nine centuries from 224 BCE to 651 CE. Towards the end of this empire, Muslim Arabs and Persians came face to face in the Battle of Qadisiya, in 636 CE, germinating a lasting rivalry. Since 1979, Iran is an Islamic Republic. At no point in this historical journey of over 2,500 years, the nationalistic fervour of the Iranian people ever diminished.

In history, language, art and culture, there has been considerable congruity between the Persian mainland and the territories of Pakistan. The Persian language spread to India in the 16th century when the Mughals adopted it as the court language. Allama Iqbal is well known in Iran as Iqbal-i-Lahoori. Much of the poetry of Ghalib and Iqbal, as indeed the national anthem of Pakistan, are in Persian.

Iran was the first country to recognise Pakistan, on Aug 14, 1947. Iran is also the country that hosted the first embassy of Pakistan abroad. Over the decades, Pakistan and Iran have maintained cordial relations. Notably, barring a few irritants, there is no major dispute between the two countries.

Tangible bilateral cooperation is far below potential.

Despite this enormous goodwill, the tangible bilateral cooperation is far below potential. Some argue that the US sanctions imposed on Iran had undermined prospects for bilateral cooperation, while others blame the absence of political will on either side. On balance, the positives of the relationship far outweigh the negatives, and can thus help the relationship flourish to its full bloom. In this regard, three issues — energy, border, and trade — are of critical importance.

As Pakistan’s neighbour, Iran should have been a natural choice for sourcing our energy needs. The Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline agreement (IP) was signed in 2012, but fell victim to US and UN sanctions. The successful conclusion of the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) in 2015 raised hopes but unilateral withdrawal of the US from the deal in 2018 kept Iran under US sanctions. In 2022, the Financial Action Task Force also blacklisted Iran. These factors have stalled Pakistan’s efforts to implement the IP project.

Iran has often hinted at imposing penalties on Pakistan for not implementing the IP agreement. For its part, Pakistan has tried to invoke force majeure, mainly because of US sanctions which is a factor beyond Pakistan’s control. Going forward, both countries will be advised to work towards finding a way to legally circumvent US sanctions given that gas is not a sanctioned commodity.

Another priority area is to better manage the border, which Pakistan calls one of ‘Peace, friendship and love’. While this is certainly a border between two friends, some militant groups routinely indulge in cross-border terrorism. One such group was Jundullah, a Sunni militant organisation whose leader was executed in Iran in 2010. Since then, the organisation’s members have operated under different names, including Jaish al-Adl. The BLA is also active in the area, possibly with foreign support. Kulbhushan Jadhav of India, who committed espion­age and sabotage, was also apprehended in Balochistan. Since all this can aggravate misunderstan­dings, it is important for Iran and Pakistan to enhance coordination on cross-border issues.

The two countries, despite being neighbours, have also not been able to boost bilateral trade. Ostensibly, the reason is the absence of payment mechanisms or regular banking channels due to US sanctions. While there is insignificant formal trade, informal trade has flourished. Two steps taken recently are likely to boost formal trade: a check on smuggling and the opening of a border market at Pishin-Mand crossing point. Border markets and barter trade should be encouraged to sidestep economic sanctions on Iran.

The recent rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia brokered by China and the growing Iran-China economic relations can greatly help us boost our own economic and commercial ties with Iran. In this regard, the potential of Gwadar and Chabahar ports being complementary must also be utilised fully. It would be worthwhile if China and Pakistan consider the possibility of extending CPEC to Iran.

The writer is a former foreign secretary of Pakistan and chairman, Sanober Institute, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, January 14th, 2024

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