Alienating Tehran

Can we antagonize Iran and then expect cooperation?

Alienating Tehran
The intriguing way in which the Iran angle in the arrest of Indian spy was played up during President Hassan Rouhani’s visit to Pakistan leaves little doubt that there is something amiss in Pakistan-Iran ties. Tehran-Islamabad relations were not in the best shape to begin with, but the two were certainly not expected to touch this low particularly at a time when the Iranian president was visiting Pakistan for a new start after the lifting of the nuclear related sanctions.

Pakistani officials have afterwards labored to limit the damage caused by the allegations that Indian intelligence agency RAW’s operative Commander Kulbushan Jhadav was conducting espionage operations from Iranian soil, but the episode that resembled the Cold War days covert intelligence struggle could harm the relations or at least impede the progress towards developing economic cooperation.

The Iranian embassy cautioned about this eventuality in a press note. Noting that the media reporting on the matter contained “undignified and insulting content”.

Responding to media queries at a press conference, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar rejected the possibility of Iran conniving with India to destabilize Pakistan and said: “We cannot even imagine such a thing”.
Instability in Balochistan will create unrest in the neighboring Iranian province

At another press conference military spokesman Lt Gen Asim Bajwa said he could not say with certainty, or even knew, if the Iranian government or its intelligence was aware of RAW carrying out its intelligence operation from its soil. He went on to say that Iran had assured its cooperation in this regard.

Pakistan’s subsequent explanations notwithstanding, it was a major embarrassment for Iran, particularly because the episode unfolded as President Rouhani’s Pakistan visit started and climaxed after the meeting between Mr Rouhani and army chief Gen Raheel Sharif, when DG ISPR tweeted: “Army chief highlighted challenges being faced by Pakistan and discussed involvement of RAW in Pak’s internal affairs specially in Balochistan”.

There is an interesting apparent consensus between Tehran and Islamabad that the spy affair was a conspiracy against their relationship.

President Rouhani, while concluding his two-day visit, observed that such rumours come up whenever Pakistan and Iran get close, while Pakistan’s interior minister closely echoed him at a presser this week, when he said: “vested interests always wanted to create strains in relations between the two countries.”

Who is conspiring against closer ties between the two neighbors? Iran’s ambassador to Pakistan Mehdi Honardoost blamed some unnamed countries, in a media interview.

Tehran, much like some of Pakistan’s Arab allies, has a close relationship with India, which is driven by trade, economic and energy cooperation. But, does that mean that it would turn a blind eye to India running a spying ring against Pakistan from its soil?

It is also questionable that Iran would allow someone to destabilize Balochistan because instability in the province would provoke similar insecurity in its restive Sistan-Balochistan province.

There is also realization in Iran that Pakistan, which supported it on the nuclear issue, is a more reliable partner than India, which now hardly acts independently of the United States. The cooperation that Pakistan extended to Iran for capture of terrorist Abolmalek Rigi wouldn’t have been forgotten either.

One cannot, at the same time, ignore the fact that India has set its eyes on Balochistan.

The best way for Islamabad, therefore, was to quietly seek Iran’s cooperation against the Indian intelligence network present on its territory, instead of creating this furor. To quote one example, the reference sent to Iran, which was also shared with the media, named another RAW agent Rakesh alias Rizwan – a Jhadav associate – and sought his handover. Can someone rational expect the spy to remain there after his name became public?

Antagonizing the other side from whom cooperation is required only complicates the matter. Amb Honardoost’s assessment that the Iran’s name was bandied around on behest of some other country could harden Tehran’s position, and instead of seeing Pakistan as a friend and prospective trade partner, it could begin taking it as an enemy’s ally.

If handled imprudently, the spy story can rupture the relationship between Pakistan and Iran, which would then have a political and security impact and may carry a major economic cost. But a bigger question before the Pakistani strategists is whether it is worthwhile to concede more space to India in Iran by alienating Tehran.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad


Twitter: @bokhari_mr