Changing needs with emerging times
The view that Iran is going to emerge as the US gendarme in the Gulf, a role it played under the Shah during the Cold War, is somewhat far-fetched. What is forgotten is that the Iran under the Shah was a secular monarchy and not a Shi’a quasi democracy. Both Washington and Tehran had common interest to keep a check on the spread of the Arab nationalist sentiment in the Gulf and stop Soviet influence in the region.
At present, American and Iranian policies in the Gulf are diametrically opposed. Despite recent differences Israel remains the closest US ally in the region. Iran on the other hand is committed to supporting the Palestinian cause and has close links with Hamas, particularly with its Izzuddin Brigade group. Iran also fully supports Syria. For Iran to get the US endorsement as a dominant power in the Gulf either the US or Iran will have to radically change their policies on Palestine, Syria and Iraq.
The lifting of the sanctions will however provide Iran the means to emerge as the strongest country in the Gulf, both economically and militarily. This too could take a few years though. There is no doubt that Iran would henceforth play a larger role in the Gulf than before. The visit to Kuwait early this month by Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is indicative of the Iranian government’s desire to initiate diplomatic overtures in the Gulf without losing time. How long Iran takes to end Saudi hegemony in the Gulf remains to be seen.
For Pakistan Iran will have major importance as it comes out of the sanctions era irrespective of its position in the Gulf. Islamabad therefore needs to display sufficient alacrity to take relations with Iran to a higher stage. This would need taking a number of brave steps it has been avoiding so far.
The lifting of the sanctions will however provide Iran the means to emerge as the strongest country in the Gulf, both economically and militarily
Pakistan and Iran enjoyed close economic and strategic relations during the Cold War. These deteriorated after the anti-US Islamic revolution in Iran and the emergence of pro-US Zia-ul-Haq’s military regime in Pakistan. Zia-ul-Haq’s anti-Shi’a stance was another source of friction with Iran. A tense rivalry between the two countries in Afghanistan’s civil war led to further deterioration of ties.
Pakistan needs to start a new chapter in relations with Iran. Pakistan shares borders with four neighbours out of which only one is a dependable ally. To the east is the arch rival India which has a 2,912 km border with Pakistan. To the northwest lies Afghanistan with a shared border of 2,430 km. In the North is China with 523 kilometre long border. Iran in the west and has a 909 km border with Pakistan.
Developing cordial relations with Iran is thus Pakistan’s strategic need. It cannot afford to be surrounded on three sides by hostile countries. Over the last few years the situation on Pak-Iran border has been less than satisfactory. Iran has complained about terrorist networks launching cross border attacks inside its territory, kidnapping and killing Iranian security guards. For years Iran has protested, threatened to seal borders, warned of sending troops inside Pakistan and fired rockets that have caused human and material losses in neighbouring settlements.
This is not a happy situation. Friendly relations with Iran are also crucial for Pakistan’s economy. Both countries stand to gain a lot from enhancing bilateral cooperation particularly in energy, security, communication and infrastructure. Iran can go a long way to fulfil Pakistan’s needs in gas, oil and electricity.
With the lifting of the US sanctions Pakistan needs to move apace to complete the Iran-Pakistan Gas Pipeline Project. What is more Islamabad should pursue the once much talked about Iran-sponsored $4b oil refinery under a joint venture partnership in Gwadar. It should also lay an oil pipeline between the two countries.
Highly crucial for Pakistan is the import of cheap electricity from Iran. This is also needed to provide power to areas in Balochistan where the population has not benefitted from electricity over the last sixty eight years.
Three year back Iran had offered 1,000 MW power to Pakistan. In April this year Tehran made another offer of 3,000 MW. The Iranian offer is better than other options being considered by Pakistan, which include import of power from Central Asia and China. In both cases huge security risks and difficult terrain make these projects problematic. The Iranian option is the cheapest, quickest and relatively hassle-free.
Pakistan was able to sign the previous deal at around eight cents (around Rs8) per kilowatt. With oil prices now having fallen almost 30 per cent of that upper limit, the deal could perhaps be inked at half of that price. Compared to it Pakistan’s own generation with furnace oil costs over 20 cents per unit.
Pak-Iran cooperation in road-cum-rail network would create jobs and business opportunities for the local population. The opening of a new border crossing at Gabd-Reemdan would connect southern parts of Balochistan and Karachi with Chabahar and Bandar Abbas through the Coastal Highway.
The lifting of sanctions would open big opportunities for Pakistan to enhance its commercial and economic ties with Iran. Among major commodities that Pakistan can export to Iran are wheat, rice, meat and fruits.
Tough decisions are required to deal with the menace of seminaries spreading hatred and providing s help and support to sectarian terrorists
What stands in the way are hard decisions needed to remove the roadblocks in taking the relations to a higher stage. Foremost is the need to put an end to sectarian terrorism while simultaneously initiating a countrywide campaign to eliminate extremist thinking. It remains to be seen if the tough decisions taken to deal with the LeJ and ASWJ are not a temporary change of policy.
Anti-Shi’a militants fighting the Iranian regime have often taken refuge in Pakistan, especially in Balochistan. From here they have launched attacks inside the neighbouring country. The leadership of both Jundullah and Jaish ul-Adl, which has played havoc along the Pak-Iran border, comprised émigrés from the Iranian side. It is widely believed that the networks are financially supported by the Saudi government.
With the US seeking better ties with Iran, Washington is likely to stop whatever encouragement it might have provided to the networks. There is a need to put an end to these networks using Pakistan as a springboard.
Tough decisions are required to deal with the menace of seminaries spreading hatred and providing s help and support to sectarian terrorists. Saudi Arabia has invested highly in Salafi madrassas and mosques in Balochistan, particularly in districts adjoining the Pak-Iran border. The National Action Plan (NAP) requires a ban on terrorist groups and regulation of the madrassas. So far little has been done to enforce NAP suggestions. There is a need to take steps urgently in Balochistan to stop the spread of sectarian hatred. The slow pace in the implementation of NAP, recognised by the SC also, is one of the roadblocks in the way to the improvement of relations with Iran.
Pakistan dealt effectively with the East Turkestan terrorists in Pakistan on China’s demand. Why can’t a similar action be taken against Jundullah and Jaish ul-Adl operating from inside Pakistan?
Equally important is to come down with a heavy hand against the drug lords of the province. It is widely understood that there is a strong nexus between the drug cartels and terrorist networks in Pakistan.
Pak-Iran Ties | Aziz-ud-Din Ahmad