How Iran Once Sought To Prevent Pakistan’s Breakup

It is possible that the account of the 1971 war might have been different had Yahya Khan followed the Shah’s advice to engage peacefully with the East Pakistanis

How Iran Once Sought To Prevent Pakistan’s Breakup

Remembered as one of the most magnificent parties in history – the 2,500 year anniversary celebration of the Persian Empire in October 1971 was also the scene of a last ditch diplomatic effort by the Iranian government to save Pakistan from dismemberment.

Despite sharing elements of culture and common historical experiences, Pakistan’s relationship with neighbouring Iran has often been tense. While Iran was the first state to recognise the independence of Pakistan in August 1947 and subsequently forged an intimate relationship with Islamabad over the next three decades - bi-lateral relations between them began to deteriorate in the years following the 1979 Iranian revolution. Contemporary ties between the two Islamic Republics have involved cooperation in sensitive security matters – most notably in the restive Baluchistan region – but Pakistan’s deep rooted ties with the Saudis mean that the South Asian country is eyed with suspicion by Iran’s ruling elite. Nevertheless, Tehran was perhaps Islamabad’s most steadfast ally throughout the 1971 East Bengal crisis and played an often forgotten role in seeking to prevent the breakup of Pakistan.

The general elections of December 1970 in Pakistan – the first in the country’s history – set in motion a chain of events which eventually culminated in the creation of Bangladesh and the surrender of the Pakistan Army in Dhaka. The military defeat of Islamabad came primarily as a consequence of India’s intervention in East Pakistan – where the Pakistani military was exhausted in a nine month campaign battling the Mukti Bahini led guerilla insurgency. Discontent in Pakistan’s Bengali majority eastern wing had been steadily brewing since the partition of the Indian subcontinent and Iranian officials repeatedly advised Islamabad to work towards a domestic political compromise. Tehran also feared that any internal strife in Pakistan could be exploited by India – a close Soviet ally – and result in increased Soviet regional influence.

When Pakistan’s longtime dictator - President Ayub Khan - was toppled by a mass movement in 1969, Iranian officials assessed that New Delhi might attempt to seek advantage of the power transition underway in Islamabad. Amidst this period of internal turbulence in Pakistan – the Iranian Foreign Minister, Ardeshir Zahedi, warned Indian diplomat M.C. Chagla; ‘Iran will support Pakistan 100% if India takes any military steps against it.’ The Indian Foreign Office promptly relayed the message back to the Indira Gandhi government and a possible Indian invasion of Pakistan was averted.

Like many members of Islamabad’s ruling elite at the time – the Shah of Iran believed that the Soviet Union followed a policy of employing ‘proxy’ governments in Kabul and New Delhi to exert pressure on Pakistan’s eastern and western flanks. Kabul’s advocacy of the Pashtunistan issue was a major concern for Islamabad during this period and shortly before President Ayub’s resignation – the Shah dispatched a senior official to Afghanistan, who urged King Zahir Shah’s government not to harass Pakistan at a time when it is most vulnerable. After the Ayub regime’s fall, the country’s top military commander – General Yahya Khan – assumed the Presidency and embarked on a much publicised visit to Iran as one of his first foreign assignments.

General Yahya and the Shah reportedly developed a good rapport but the Iranian monarch was concerned about the increasingly volatile situation in East Pakistan. The Shah advised Yahya that ‘it was no use trying to find a military solution against the Awami League and its sympathisers’ and that the Pakistanis had made a grave error in ignoring the wishes of its majority Bengali population. However, Tehran’s urging of caution fell on deaf ears as the Pakistan Army launched a brutal crackdown against Bengali separatists in March 1971.

As the Pakistani military became bogged down in East Bengal, General Yahya began to realise that he had miscalculated and that Islamabad was lacking the diplomatic support and financial muscle needed to overcome the crisis. Yahya enlisted the services of former Foreign Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto – who flew to Tehran in July 1971 to request military assistance. Since the 1965 Pakistan-India war, Iran had become a vital transit route for Islamabad’s procurement of western weapons. The Americans, who had officially placed Pakistan under an arms embargo at the time, were prepared to look the other way. Bhutto’s visit to Iran proved to be a fruitful one as Tehran agreed to supply Pakistan with much needed military hardware – which included attack helicopters. Iran’s overt support for Islamabad did not deter New Delhi - which continued to funnel arms to Bengali separatists in East Pakistan. In a potentially decisive development, India also signed a landmark 20 year Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation with the Soviet Union in August 1971.

The New Delhi – Moscow accord and the increasingly precarious state of Islamabad’s military in East Bengal meant that an Indian invasion of East Pakistan seemed imminent. Like many outside observers, the Shah foresaw what was coming and attempted to test his fate one last time in resolving the crisis before an all out Pakistan – India war.

From October 12th-16th, when Iran celebrated its 2500 year anniversary of the Persian Empire’s founding, the Shah aspired to set up a rare meeting between General Yahya and Soviet President Nikolai Podgorny. According to the Shah, he had believed at the time that the Soviet Union could be convinced to make New Delhi cease its support for the Mukti Bahini insurgency. Despite the best efforts of the Shah and the Iranian diplomatic service, the meeting could not be arranged.

Writing in his last memoir before his death in 1980, the Shah noted that, ‘This is why I wanted to take advantage of the presence in Persepolis of then President of Pakistan, Yahya Khan, on the occasion of the 2,500 anniversary of the Persian Empire. I hoped to arrange a meeting between him and the President of the USSR, Podgorny, and thus to help avert the impending conflict between India and Pakistan over Bangladesh.’

All out war between Pakistan and India finally began on 3rd December 1971 and culminated 13 days later with the surrender of Pakistani army units in Dhaka. Throughout the conflict, Iran remained Islamabad’s largest source of crude oil and the eastern Iranian city of Zahedan functioned as a critical supply hub for Pakistan. Some reports suggest that Tehran was even considering providing its vaunted fleet of American made F-4 Phantom jets to the Pakistan Air Force, but the move fell through owing to a lack of spare parts and logistical constraints.

In the years after the Pakistani defeat of 1971 – Iran played an instrumental role in the eventual recovery of Islamabad as a regional powerhouse. Tehran successfully lobbied western governments to quickly rearm the Pakistani military and also functioned as an arbitrator in Islamabad’s communication with the breakaway state of Bangladesh. The role of the Iranian Foreign Office was especially significant in this regard and contacts made via Tehran eventually culminated with Pakistan granting diplomatic recognition to Bangladesh in 1974.

While contemporary Pakistan-Iran ties are sometimes marred by mutual distrust and a reluctance for extensive engagement, Tehran’s vital support for Islamabad in the 1971 crisis is a testament to the sincerity with which the Iranian leadership has stood by Pakistan in its hour of need. It is possible that the account of the 1971 war might have been different had President Yahya followed the Shah’s advice to engage peacefully with the East Pakistanis. It is also plausible to assume that a successful meeting between General Yahya and President Podgorny could have led to the Soviets using their clout on New Delhi to urge de-escalation. Iran’s support for Islamabad throughout the East Pakistan conflict remains an important but unfortunately forgotten aspect of history, and popular awareness of the extent of Iranian diplomatic, financial and military support provided to Pakistan in 1971 can contribute in strengthening public goodwill between the two neighbours.