Talking to Tehran

Army chief's successful diplomacy turning point in relations

Talking to Tehran
Army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa’s trip to Iran will be remembered as extraordinary defense diplomacy to revitalize a relationship, which despite its significance, had come to be characterized by mutual suspicions and distrust.

Gen Bajwa visited Tehran, once an unimaginable destination for an army chief, accompanied by two of his most important aides, the directors-general of military operations and military intelligence. His stay was not only reasonably long, but also had a jam-packed schedule meeting virtually everyone who matters in Tehran’s relations with Islamabad: Chief of General Staff for Iranian Armed Forces Major General Mohammad Bagheri, Commander-in-Chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, Defense Minister Brigadier General Amir Hatami, Foreign Minister Javed Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani.

The warm reception in Tehran demonstrated the intent to improve relations, with defense and security cooperation a priority. The trip was a dramatic symbol of the fundamental shift, in Rawalpindi and Tehran, away from looking at each other with suspicion.

The two countries always had dispute-free ties, but differences over geopolitical and regional issues tended to eclipse an absence of disputes and taxed ties. Islamabad had been reluctant to warm up with Tehran because of the fears that it would not go well with the US and Arab world. There have been concerns about Iran’s involvement in Arab countries (Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon), because that was upsetting for Arab monarchies. Pakistani diplomats saw this as display of ‘hard power’ by Iran.

Islamabad’s policy on Iran was shaped by perceptions and anxieties in certain quarters that Iran had a strong ideological influence on Pakistan’s Shias. This was seen as detrimental for Pakistani state’s interests. The involvement of some Pakistani Shias in the fight against Da’ish in Iraq and Syria had intensified those perceptions. Military Spokesman Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor, who got a rare chance to speak to the press in Tehran at an event hosted by the Iranian military, alluded to those concerns. “In Pakistan we say that the prerogative of declaring jihad rests only with the State and the armed forces are the state instrument for its application against anti-state elements,” he said. This assertion revealed the candidness with which issues were being discussed in meetings with Gen Bajwa.

Iran has been suspicious of Pakistan’s close relations with Arab countries and the US. The Iranians allege that terrorist groups based on the Pakistani side of the border have been attacking its border security forces. They question the impunity enjoyed by those groups.

Both have dismissed each other’s worries. Rouhani rejected the impression of Iran intervening in other countries, saying its involvement in Iraq and Syria was on the request of their governments. Gen Bajwa reassured the Iranians that the bilateral relationship was independent of relations with other countries.

These differences, mostly in the realm of security, have impeded the growth of relations in other sectors. The changing geopolitical situation and emerging realities have, however, now forced both sides to rethink the relationship and explore cooperation.

An important decision taken during Gen Bajwa’s meetings with the Iranian leadership was on intelligence sharing and border control. “Steps like the establishment of hotline communication between the field commanders along the Pak-Iran border, fencing by Iran on its side of the border, coordinated border patrolling, intelligence sharing and more frequent interactions were agreed upon,” the ISPR said.

Gen Ghafoor may have summed up the visit noting that Gen Bajwa’s delegation left Tehran with “positive feelings”, but a lot more will be needed than just a visit to prove that the bonhomie was not an aberration. Pakistan and Iran have an unenviable history of signing too many agreements that remain unimplemented. No one should expect that the legacy of nearly four decades of distrust can be erased so easily.

The success of Gen Bajwa’s visit, being seen in military circles as a crowning moment in his diplomatic endeavours, cannot be measured by the yardstick of agreements reached, but whether it advances normalization, especially in areas where interests coincide: a peaceful Afghanistan and preventing Da’ish gaining a foothold in the region being the immediate ones.

It is encouraging to hear from the military spokesman that, “Pakistani and Iranian military leaderships have agreed to continue bilateral engagements for enhanced security cooperation.”

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad and can be reached at and @bokhari_mr