Dissecting The Pakistan-Iran Relationship

Even though Pakistan and Iran must collaborate on regional security, evaluating the future of Pakistan's diplomatic, economic and military ties with Iran is difficult given Pakistan's reliance on the Saudis and the Americans.

Dissecting The Pakistan-Iran Relationship

The Urdu language has produced three great poets—Ghalib, Allama Iqbal and Faiz Ahmed Faiz. All three have written in the Persian language. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to point out that all of these poets became poetic geniuses by way of their proficiency in Persian language, grammar and literature. In the days of Ghalib and to some extent in the days of Iqbal, a poet would not be recognized as great in the marketplace of ideas if they had not become well versed in Persian literature and poetry. 

Only a generation earlier, people were not considered literate if they had not learned Persian language and grammar. I remember growing up listening to supernatural stories about a compassionate Persian King and a beautiful Persian princess from my grandmother. She was well versed in Persian literature and poetry. On the other side of the border, we have a society in Tehran which uses Allama Iqbal’s poetry and his verses as part of its daily language idiom.

This cultural and literary basis of our relations with Iranian society was politically reinforced during the days of Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and even before his tenure as Prime Minister, during the 1965 and 1971 wars, when according to Pakistani folklore, the Shah of Iran offered military hardware to the Pakistan military in their wars with a much larger India. The Shah of Iran again offered military hardware to the Pakistan military when the latter was fighting the Soviet backed Baloch insurgents in the mid-1970s. 

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 changed this landscape somewhat. At that time, Pakistan was being ruled by a military dictator whose inclinations towards Sunni orthodoxy are well known. While the Shia clergy in Iran, and the Pakistan military, with their inclination towards Sunni orthodoxy and Islamism, were busy consolidating their grip on power in Tehran and Islamabad, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Both the Shia clerical regime in Tehran and the military dictatorship in Islamabad decided to back their respective Shia and Sunni client groups in Afghanistan, to fight against the occupying Soviet military. Democracy was restored in Pakistan later, and the Taliban emerged as the dominant political force in Afghanistan. The Soviets withdrew from Kabul and a little more than a decade later, American forces invaded Afghanistan.

All these revolutions ravaged our region, and wrought changes which left significant impacts on both Iranian and Pakistan society, and colored the worldview of the regimes that presided over these states. I remember attending a party around the time of the October 1999 military coup where senior officers of the Pakistan military mingled with intellectuals and journalists. Iran came up for discussion, especially in the context of the Iranian clergy’s anger towards the Pakistani security establishment’s overt support for the Sunni Taliban. 

I remember a senior journalist opining about Iran-Pakistan relations, claiming “let there be a hundred revolutions in Iran, and let there be a hundred revolutions in Pakistan, the depth of relations between these two societies will never change.” After the Taliban captured Kabul for the first time in 1996 and Pakistan recognized them as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, the Iranian clergy and its military organization were frustrated by the level of support the Pakistani military and intelligence services were providing to the Taliban. 

How Pakistan will manage its relations with Saudi Arabia if it embarks on the path of developing closer economic, military and security ties with Iran is a question that still needs to be answered.

The American invasion of Afghanistan brought about a dramatic shift. Post 2001, the Iranian military apparatus started to provide assistance to the Taliban in their fight against American forces. The Taliban and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards later also found a common enemy in the form of the radical Sunni extremist group which goes by the name of IS-K. 

The Pakistani military and intelligence services may be having their own problems with the Afghan Taliban, but they share the Iranians’ view that the Afghan Taliban are more manageable, and can be trusted to act as a bulwark against the rising wave of radical Sunni extremism in Afghanistan and in the larger region.

There are large convergences of perspective on security related issues between Iran and Pakistan. Yet, there are three obstacles in the way of deepening Pakistan-Iran relations.

The most salient is the Saudi factor in defining the tenor of Pakistan-Iran relations. The Iranians have lately been devoting energies towards their dream of constructing a Shia corridor to the Mediterranean. The rise of the Shia dominated regime in Iraq and Hezbollah’s dominance of Lebanon’s politics might pave the way for this dream to manifest. At least this is what the Sunni Sheikhdoms in the Arab world fear. Iran has in fact galvanized Shia communities in Muslim countries across the region. This machination from the Iranians poses a direct threat to Saudi Arabia’s security, especially since Iran funds, trains and provides weapons to Houthi rebels in Yemen, right in the Saudis’ backyard. For Saudi Arabia, Iran is not simply a Shia state, it’s a state that directly threatens Saudi Arabia’s security and interests in the region.

Pakistan’s financial dependence on Saudi Arabia is no secret. The frequency of military-to -military contact between Pakistan and Iran implies that the two militaries frequently exchange notes on regional security. However, Pakistan’s close relations with Iran do not fit well into Pakistan's own calculations about meeting its international financial obligations in the absence of Saudi patronage.

How Pakistan will manage its relations with Saudi Arabia if it embarks on the path of developing closer economic, military and security ties with Iran is a question that still needs to be answered.

There is then the fear of American sanctions if Pakistan-Iran relations are to be bolstered.

However, there is a strong body of opinion that rising tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran are not in Pakistan’s interests and Pakistani diplomacy needs to decisively act to lower the temperature between the two countries. An increase in tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran have domestic security implications for Pakistani society in the form of aggravating Shia-Sunni tensions.

There is then the fear of American sanctions if Pakistan-Iran relations are to be bolstered. In an immediate reaction to the announcement of the Pakistan-Iran free trade agreement, the US Department of State cautioned the Pakistani government against engaging in business deals with Iran. “We advise anyone considering business deals with Iran to be aware of the potential risk of sanctions. But ultimately, the government of Pakistan can speak to their own foreign policy pursuits,” spokesperson Vedant Patel said during a news briefing. The Pakistan government said that Iran and Pakistan have additionally agreed to cooperate in the energy sector, including trade in electricity, power transmission lines and the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project.

Apparently, it seems Pakistan has a clear plan in mind with regards to inviting the Iranian President to Islamabad, where the two sides jointly condemned the Israeli attack on the Iranian embassy in Damascus. We can safely conclude that Pakistan sees any attempt to economically cripple or military destroy Iran as opposed to its interests. The Iranian state is surrounded by Sunni regimes in the region, and subsequently, Iran’s security paradigm is defined by this sense of geographical isolation and containment. The Pakistani foreign policy establishment must have taken into account the fact that Iran is not only facing isolation at the hands of Sunni regimes, it would attract the wrath of the Western political bloc after attacking Israel within two days of telephonic contact between the Pakistani President and Iranian President—a telephonic conversation in which Israeli belligerence came under discussion.

However, what Pakistan and Iran perceive as Israeli belligerence is a patent act of self-defense in the eyes of Israel’s western backers. The problem with Pakistani foreign policy is that these same Western powers, especially the United States, will have to act as a guarantor of Pakistan’s financial viability in the face of the persistent fear of Pakistan’s possible sovereign default against its international financial obligations.

Conversely, the Iranian President cutting business deals with Pakistani businessmen means there is a flipside to the story. Consider this: the de jure head of the Iranian political establishment spent three days in Pakistan, discussing business deals and trade with the Pakistani leadership, and was away from Iran’s power corridors, where revenge is still the dominant buzzword. Maybe, this is Pakistan’s way of signaling to Washington that Islamabad could exert influence on Iran, which would soften the harsh tone of the Iranian military and clerical establishment.

Pakistan is in fact, in a rather difficult situation with regards to the question of what kind of relations it should have with Iran. The Pakistani military apparently thinks that Pakistan does not have any option but to continuously engage Iran in security talks.

There is also the India factor in determining the durability of Pakistan-Iran relations. The Iranians are becoming wary of India’s security apparatus. Pakistani intelligence suggests that many RAW operatives use Iranian border towns and cities as bases from which to penetrate deep into Pakistani Balochistan. Pakistani intelligence also suggests that Baloch separatist rebels use Iranian territory to launch attacks against security forces in Balochistan, and that Indian intelligence, which provides support to these rebels, has safe havens in Iranian Balochistan.

Iran’s diplomatic relations with New Delhi have been strong, especially with BJP led governments. India, just like Pakistan, has been ignoring Washington’s warnings against developing commercial and economic relations with Tehran. There is considerable body of opinion within Pakistan’s foreign policy establishment that sees India’s role in Iran as a factor which could prevent Pakistan from putting any of its diplomatic eggs in the Iranian basket.

Pakistan is in fact, in a rather difficult situation with regards to the question of what kind of relations it should have with Iran. The Pakistani military apparently thinks that Pakistan does not have any option but to continuously engage Iran in security talks. Pakistani military leaders not only interact with the Iranians on a regular basis, but they have become a point of contact for American Central Command leadership when it comes to exchanging notes on regional security. The Pakistani security establishment must engage in quite the balancing act when dabbling in this kind of military diplomacy.

Nuclear theorists sometimes argue that geographically adjacent nuclear states are destined to act as rivals. Pakistan is a nuclear state, and Iran, with its own nuclear ambitions, is not far behind in declaring its nuclear status. Would the two countries be rivals then? What kind of rivalry will come about? Will the love and romance inspiring poetry of Ghalib, Faiz, Saadi and Iqbal go down the drain?

The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad.