On May 23, Presidents Hassan Rouhani and Ashraf Ghani, and Prime Minister Modi were beaming with jubilation as Iran, Afghanistan and India endorsed a new transit trade agreement, also known as Chabahar. It may have been a coincidence that, just a day earlier, the US claimed an American drone strike had killed the Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor in Balochistan. It has also been reported that he was coming from the Pak-Iran border town of Taftan. Apparently unconnected, in a broader perspective the two events may have far-reaching implications for this region.
The agreement signed in Tehran stipulates that the Iranian port of Chabahar will make available all facilities of transit trade to Afghanistan; and to operationalise this trilateral agreement, the three countries will make investments from their own resources. The event made it clear that the happiest of the three leaders was the host, Hassan Rouhani, whose last visit to Pakistan was marred by the revelation that an Indian spy had been caught after sneaking into Pakistan from Iran. Some analysts believe the episode was blown out of proportion at an inauspicious time.
The president of Iran was made to feel uncomfortable and awkward in the face of allegations that Iran was not doing enough to prevent Indian spies from entering into Pakistan. Just one spy was allowed to ruin any chances of better relations between the two countries, and that too when the president was a guest.
After signing the agreement, President Rouhani gave a message to the neighbouring countries [read Pakistan] that Delhi, Kabul, and Tehran will work together for peace and prosperity of this region by opening new avenues for cooperation and mutual utilisation of resources.
Perhaps, the most prominent element of the recent get-together in Tehran was the commitment that India made about $500m worth of investment in Iran; in addition, dozens of joint projects have been promised. India plans to invest $200m right away, and the remaining amount will be spent in the near future.
For Pakistan, the point to ponder is that Chabahar is hardly a 100 kilometres away from Pakistan; hardly as far as Hyderabad is from Karachi. Even more important is the fact that this port will serve not only Iran, India, and Afghanistan, but also serve as a corridor to the Central Asian countries; whereas we are exclusively focused on our China-Pak Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Essentially China focused, CPEC could have been a bonanza for us had we been able to normalise our relations with other neighbours. Not only China, but even Russia and the US would like us to make CPEC a regional resource benefiting all rather than just one country. It does not require much to figure that out, provided we learn to look beyond the traditional binary.
The friendship India has nurtured with Afghanistan and Iran is not a recent phenomenon and India has always enjoyed excellent relations with Russia and erstwhile Soviet Union. The Central Asian countries that broke away from the USSR have always had a soft corner with secular India, while we have been trying to reignite a common religious flame with them.
The recent agreement that India has signed with Iran includes many projects involving science, technology, and cultural cooperation.
After the removal of most sanctions imposed by the US, Iran has emerged as an ideal trade partner in this region, and Pakistan had a golden opportunity to capitalise on this by improving relations with at least one neighbour. India has been a big oil importer from Iran, whereas we have been mostly relying on Saudi Arabia from where we import much more than oil; and those additional imports from Saudi Arabia have permeated across Pakistan during the last four decades. Even then, Modi was accorded a warm welcome by the new Saudi king recently.
So, how exactly has the new agreement sidelined Pakistan and what is the scope of our loss? Pakistan has been sidelined in at least three areas of influence: economic, political, and diplomatic. Economically, Pakistan has sidelined itself by being reluctant to provide access to trade facilities from India to Afghanistan and onward to Central Asia. Similarly, it has been hesitant to complete its part of Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline. By doing so, Pakistan’s self-proclaimed patriots wanted to deprive India, Afghanistan, and Iran of some economic advantage they might have got through Pakistan. By showing some foresight, Pakistan would have earned billions of dollars in transit fee. But we lost that opportunity.
Politically, we have lost an opportunity to enhance our neighbours’ dependence on us and emerge as an astute political partner in this region. We have lowered our own strategic hold on the land-locked countries of Central Asia by trying to reduce access to sea and to India. Open access through Wagah border would have given us more political than economic clout. By being a facilitator rather than a troublemaker, we would have burnished our political image.
Diplomatically, cultural linkages play an important role. But that depends on how civilised you look to other nations. Diplomacy is no more a zero-sum game; it’s like human relations that need consideration and mutual respect but we seemed to have annoyed all our neighbours — Afghanistan, India, and Iran.
Now a million-dollar question: why didn’t the Pakistani policy makers anticipate the colossal loss of this missed opportunity? If history is any guide, we have paid a heavy price for this recidivist behavior but refuse to be counselled.
The US makes no secret of its relations with India; especially after the civilian nuclear agreement they signed in 2008. As Pakistan gets closer to China, the US gets closer to India, and in this context our role in Afghanistan becomes more ‘controversial’. The US has been trying to stabilise Afghanistan and pushing Pakistan to act decisively against the so-called Haqqani Network.
Recent history has time and again proved our calculations wrong; and there have been writers, journalists and intellectuals pinpointing our errors of judgment, but they have been repeatedly marginalised and overruled.
This region is witnessing a sharp polarisation in which Pakistan appears to be standing with China and Saudi Arabia; whereas America, Afghanistan, India, and Iran appear to be gravitating closer. This is creating a new power game. We need to decide whether we want to keep moving away from our three neighbours with whom we share the longest borders.