THE three-day, high-profile visit of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to India last month infuriated many in the Pakistani establishment for what is being perceived as Iran’s outright partisanship towards India. Rouhani was reciprocating an earlier visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Iran in 2016 when India, Iran and Afghanistan signed a trilateral transport agreement.
Rouhani spent two days in Hyderabad (India), where he visited cultural landmarks and found the time to interact at length with students, religious scholars and members of the Iranian diaspora. He then flew to New Delhi where he signed a series of agreements, including one that gives operational control of the Shahid Beheshti port — phase one of the Chabahar port — to India for 18 months.
Rouhani’s visit was not ceremonial; while India continues to unnecessarily sensationalise the visit, it is a significant development in regional geopolitics and will yield tangible results. This is already evident as under the auspices of the India-Iran parliamentary group, several Iranian legislators will soon be travelling to India to review the implementation of agreements signed earlier.
President Rouhani’s visit to Pakistan in March 2016 was nowhere near as spectacular; the visit was shorter and miles away from any culturally significant or festive surroundings, and the Iranian president remained quite defensive throughout his trip because he was incessantly questioned about Kulbhushan Jadhav, the Indian spy who had illegally entered Pakistan from Iran under false pretences and was captured in Balochistan while engaged in clandestine activities. Interestingly enough, he was based in Chabahar located just 90 kilometres from the Pakistani port city of Gwadar.
Historically, relations between Pakistan and Iran have at best remained lukewarm.
Historically, relations between Pakistan and Iran have at best remained lukewarm; in fact, it is safe to say that they have not been ideal, given the geopolitics of the region. Indeed, both these states have often found themselves in opposing global geopolitical camps.
Today, US sanctions have put Iran under tremendous economic pressure and it is desperately seeking to improve and diversify its economic base. It thus sees India as a huge, and relatively close, market with which it can help develop economic and trading ties. But Pakistan’s close relationship with Saudi Arabia is a significant concern for it; Iran is also irked by Pakistan’s failure to operationalise the Pakistan-Iran gas pipeline, and has recently threatened to take legal recourse if Pakistan fails to complete its obligations in this regard.
Nonetheless, Iran is well aware that an Indian presence on Pakistan’s western border through the Chabahar reconstruction and gateway project is viewed by Pakistan as both an economic as well as a security threat, and therefore realises that it has to tread carefully. In this vein, the Iranian air force chief, Brig Gen Hassan Shah Safi, visited Pakistan and met army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa recently. Perhaps it would be a positive move if Iranian Foreign Minister Javed Zarif, and the all-important head of Iran’s Strategic Council on Foreign Relations, Seyyed Kamal Kharazi, travelled to Pakistan to allay fears about Indian influence over the Chabahar port.
The dilemma facing Pakistan-Iran ties is that both countries currently operate under a trust deficit, with virtually no history of serious mutual confidence building. Instead, they often take half measures or indulge in tokenism in order to improve ties that do not have a major impact on trust-building in real terms. So while high-level interaction, such as a visit by Gen Bajwa to Iran in November 2017, have led to a few reciprocal gestures of goodwill by Iran and some confidence building between the two states, these have been short-lived at best.
For example, when Gen Bajwa somewhat allayed Iran’s concerns over Pakistan’s involvement in the Saudi-led Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Alliance, Iran publicly confirmed the status of the Chabahar port as a sister port to Gwadar and invited Pakistan’s Minister for Maritime Affairs Mir Hasil Bizenjo and the chairman of the Gwadar port to attend the inauguration of the Shahid Beheshti port. The nature of Rouhani’s trip to India, however, irked Pakistan. Observers have pointed out that shortly after his visit, Pakistan pledged to post an additional army contingent to Saudi Arabia on a training and advisement mission.
While there is no legal requirement for Iran to consult or seek approval from a foreign state for the development of its economic, infrastructural resources in its border areas contiguous with Pakistan, cooperating with Pakistan in good faith would help bring stability to the region.
Further, if Iran wants Pakistan to be comfortable with economic development in Chabahar, it cannot take its own responsibilities lightly, especially in matters that undermine Pakistan’s national security, as it did in the handling of the Jadhav incident. Pakistan’s sovereignty was violated under Article 2 (4) of the UN Charter when Jadhav used Iranian territory to illegally enter Pakistan and Iran’s oversight in preventing this blatant infringement of international law was a violation of its own responsibility as a state under customary international law.
Both Pakistan and Iran have to work towards eliminating the trust deficit which currently plagues relations by creating an enabling environment for meaningful confidence-building measures. Intermittent rhetoric from a foreign minister or an adviser or two is not sufficient to address the trust deficit that exists today between the two neighbouring states.
Both countries must take the initiative and be bold and, as a matter of policy, make their official positions on significant matters clear to each other, especially regarding foreign relations. Domestically, Iran is sympathetic to the Kashmiri cause, but it must clearly and openly voice its concerns about India-held Kashmir at all international forums and proactively offer to mediate in the dispute with the interests of the Kashmiris in mind. Similarly, Pakistan must also try to genuinely mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran to lower hostilities between the two and it must refrain from any military adventurism in the Middle East.