Iran-Pakistan: New Leaders, Old Issues

30 May, 2014    ·   4479

Ayesha Khanyari analyses why Pakistan needs to balance its relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia in order to secure progress on its interests

“I am here to open a new chapter in Pakistan-Iran relationship,” Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said, on a two-day visit to Iran from 11-12 May 2014 – one that took place after a sixteen-year gap.

The visit took place at a time when ties between the two neighbours have seen tensions. The Iran-Pakistan Pipeline project remains stalled, with Iran doubting Pakistan’s commitment towards the project. The relationship further soured in February 2014 when five Iranian border guards were abducted by militants and allegedly held in Pakistan. In a bid to recover the guards, Iran threatened that it wouldn’t refrain from sending its forces across the border if need arose, when Pakistan failed to respond in a timely manner.

Amid growing concerns regarding the closeness Pakistan and Saudi Arabia enjoy, Islamabad is walking a tight rope between a long-term ally Riyadh, and Tehran, a neighbour. However, the new leaders – Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Pakistan and President Hassan Rouhani in Iran – both of whom were elected in mid-2013 seem committed to strengthening ties.

There are many reasons for Tehran and Islamabad’s eagerness to preserve close ties.
First, in his recent trip, Prime Minister Sharif informed the Iranian president that Islamabad was determined to weed out all the obstacles that currently cause friction and prevent the pipeline project from moving forward. More than economic benefits, for both the countries, the project is a crucial guidepost on the path towards greater partnership between Islamabad and Tehran. During the meeting, both the leaders reiterated their commitment to strengthen energy and security ties between the two nations.

Second, the border security issue between the two countries also featured in the discussion, where Prime Minister Sharif assured  Tehran that his country will “eliminate Jaish-ul-Adl,” the militant group that captured the Iranian border guards. Iran blamed Saudi Arabia for supporting the rebel group and Pakistan for not doing enough to secure the release of the guards. Pakistan does not intend to be party to the growing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. 

Third, in February 2014, in what was called as the largest military exercise ever conducted by Saudi Arabia, the Chief of the Pakistan Army, General Raheel Sharif, was a special guest. This was widely seen as a show of political resolve against Iran. In West Asia, Syria has become the hot spot for Saudi-Iran rivalry for regional supremacy. The recent gift of $1.5 billion from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan was viewed with suspicion. There have been mounting speculations regarding Saudi Arabia’s intention. The money is alleged to being pumped into Pakistan’s army to recruit and train volunteers who can be used against the regime in the Syrian civil war. Nawaz Sharif’s trip was aimed at reassuring Iran about its neutral position on Syria. Pakistan is keen on expressing its willingness towards refraining from taking sides in order to avoid any repercussions for its ties with Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Fourth, Tehran and Pakistan have always worked towards opposing goals in Afghanistan, supporting rival constituencies. This clash of policies regarding Afghanistan over the years has pushed Iran closer to India, isolating Pakistan at the regional level. With the impending withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan and a change in the country’s leadership, in order to avoid past mistakes, it is imperative, that Iran and Pakistan adopt complementary rather than confrontational policies in post-2014 Afghanistan. 

Additionally, projects such as the Middle East to India Deepwater Pipeline (MEIDP) – a sub-sea natural gas pipeline that will connect West Asia directly to India, by sidelining Pakistan – has caused further anxiety and  fear that a strained Pakistan-Iran relationship would only push Islamabad away from Tehran and push other neighbouring countries in the region, closer to each other.

Lastly, the sectarian dimension of the Saudi-Iran rivalry further feeds into the tensions between the Shia and Sunni populations in Pakistan. Tehran alleges that the increasing sectarian violence in the recent years in Pakistan is a product of the Saudi hard line Wahhabi ideology promoted among Sunni groups that inspires them to target the Shia minority; and Iran is particularly concerned about the rising graph of violence against Pakistan’s Shia minorities.

Caught in the Crosshairs
Against this backdrop, it makes perfect sense for Pakistan to safeguard its own interests by balancing its relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran. A comprehensive solution to put an end to the Iran-Saudi rivalry might still be out of reach, but controlling the escalation of conflicts is possible. Pakistan can play the mediator in pushing Saudi Arabia and Iran closer. Iran-Pakistan relationship – political and economic – will stand to improve only following the implementation of better border management and enhanced security measures. However, Islamabad will have to draw a line in its relations with Tehran so that it does not earn the wrath of its long time benefactor, Riyadh.