A rocky relationship

Published June 4, 2009

Relations between Pakistan and Iran have been troubled for decades, but may be getting better. — Reuters (File Photo)

As Iran head to the polls, the surge of violence across the country has sent shockwaves throughout the region. There has been bombing and rioting in Zahedan, an attempted attack on a Kish Air flight, and President Ahmedinejad's convoy has been fired at. Iran has swiftly responded to this wave of terror by closing the Taftan border crossing with Pakistan and calling on Pakistan to rein in Jundullah militants on its side of the border. It seems another spike in the tense relationship between the two Islamic Republics may be in the offing.


Much of the troubled relationship between Iran and Pakistan stems from geo-political alignments, as part of a larger, post-Revolution hostility towards Iran within the Gulf States. A battle for influence in Afghanistan is also influencing bilateral relations.


Following the Iranian Revolution, much of the greater Middle East panicked. Witnessing a westernised, autocratic ruler being overthrown after decades of suppressing his people horrified many of the pro-West autocratic regimes of the region. In response, they sought to isolate the Iranian revolution, lest it spread beyond Iran's borders. As Ray Takeyh outlines in his book Hidden Iran, 'Khomeini called on the Gulf states to emulate Iran... The profligate princely class, the hard-pressed Shia populations and the states' dependence on America were all affronts to Iran's revolutionaries.' However, this policy failed and led the Gulf States to further isolate Iran and rely on the US for security. Indeed, it even brought the Gulf States together in an attempt to contain Iranian influence.


Leading the charge against the new Iran were the Saudis and Americans - both of whom suffered attacks from Iranian-sponsored terror groups. The threat of an Iranian-style revolution, as well as the Soviet take-over of Afghanistan in the same year, energized them to do all they could to block the spread of Iranian influence. After the fall of the Soviet Union, cash-strapped Afghanistan and Pakistan provided the perfect conduit through which to do so. Vali Nasr states in The Shia Revival that 'in the 1980s and 1990s, South Asia in general and Pakistan in particula r served as the main battleground of the Saudi-Iranian and Sunni-Shia conflict.'


He goes on to quote an article from the Pakistani press in 1992, where the writer explains that Saudi-funded madrassahs in Pakistan 'form a wall blocking Iran off from Pakistan'. From these madrassahs emerged both sectarian militants as well as the general militants we now know as the Taliban on both sides of the Pak-Afghan border. As Nasr says, 'there are organisational as well as ideological ties that bind Sunni sectarians ... with Sunni Arab extremists.' Thus, the same madrassahs that gave rise to the Sipah-i-Sahaba and Lashkar-i-Jhangvi also bred the Taliban and their sympathisers concludes Nasr, who according to Foreign Policy magazine has been offered a position as senior adviser to Richard Holbrooke.


While Iran was unhappy with the rise in sectarianism within Pakistan, it was in the battle over Afghanistan and Pakistan's closeness to sectarian militants that really soured relations between the two. In Afghanistan, Pakistan supported militancy to extremes while Iran, along with neighboring states, supported the Northern Alliance. As a result, Iran and Pakistan were mutually unhappy over the other's meddling.


Two events pushed relations to a new low and almost led to an Iranian assault against the Taliban. As veteran Central Asian journalist Ahmed  Rashid chronicles in his bestseller Taliban, the first incident occurred in 1998 shortly after the Taliban capture of Mazar-i-Sharif, where the Taliban violated international law as well as basic humanitarian principles when they stormed the Iranian consulate in the city and murdered 11 Iranian diplomats in the basement. Iran was furious, particularly as it had earlier contacted the Pakistani government that had agents on the ground in Mazar. The Pakistanis had guaranteed the safety of the Iranians in the consulate.


As the Taliban advanced into Bamiyan in September 1998, they blew up parts of two ancient Buddha statues. Owing to this and their broader conquest of Bamiyan, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accused Pakistan, according to Rashid, of 'using troops and aircraft in the capture of Bamiyan' and vowed Iran would act. Justifying their actions based on national security concerns, the Iranians then deployed 200,000 troops near its border with Afghanistan. Many in the international community feared a regional war engulfing Iran, the Afghanistan-based Taliban and Pakistan would erupt.


Since the fall of the Afghan Taliban, relations between Iran and Pakistan have improved considerably since a major point of contention has disappeared. But lingering issues remain. With Pakistan moving ever closer to Saudi Arabia and the US, its relations with Iran are becoming victim to the ongoing Iran-US-Saudi proxy war over power within the greater Middle East.


Thus, even though both Pakistan and Iran have common interests - the IPI, ensuring stability in the Pakistani Balochistan and Iranian Sistan-Baluchestan provinces, seeking a stable Afghanistan, and combating sectarianism and terrorism - a complex web of alliances, rivalries and geopolitics have stymied further cooperation between the neighbours.

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