Spearhead Analysis – 09.10.2017
By Syed Murtaza Zaidi
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research
To call the relationship between Pakistan and Iran complicated, would be putting it lightly. Even though the bond between the two nations can be traced back hundreds of years, the divides between them are even greater today. Unlike Pakistan’s neighbors to the north, China, they have never been embraced as the saviors of a nation, helping them to an economically stable, and secure future. Unlike India, they have never been despised by the general populace for their politics, yet adored for their entertainment industry. And unlike Afghanistan, they have never been scorned for blaming Pakistan for their own country’s shortcomings and security problems.
Iran and Pakistan have enjoyed both good times and bad, yet the relations between the two countries have always been eclipsed by a myriad of factors. The Balochi separatist movement, the constant shadow of Russia, China, and the US’s involvement in the region, the Saudi backed Wahhabism movement, oil pipelines and naturally, terrorism. These issues have irrevocably shaped the dynamics between the two nations and have molded their respective foreign policies pertaining to one another.
Iran was the first country to recognize the State of Pakistan back in 1947 and the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, later became the first Head of State to visit the young nation in 1950. The Shah saw great potential in forming a strategic alliance with their neighbors to the east, in order to protect his interests in the region as well as to counteract the growing communist threat posed by the USSR, who were in the preliminary stages of their Cold War with the US. Pakistan in turn found it in their best interest to form close ties with a regional power, through which they could hope to gain the goodwill of the US, as well as oppose the government of Egypt’s Abdel Nasser, who was at the time backed by the Indians.
Over the next few years the two countries strengthened their ties even further by granting each other a ‘Most Favored Nation’ (MFN) status, increasing trade and military assistance, as well as joining the newly formed Central Treaty Organization (CENTO).
The first real cracks in the relationship between them started to appear during Pakistan’s early wars with India. During the 1965 war, Iran was perplexed by Pakistan’s backing of the insurgency movement in Kashmir that eventually led to the escalation of their strife with India. They were even more baffled by Pakistan’s performance in the 1971 conflict that led to the independence of Bangladesh, and secured a major victory for India. Raza Pahlavi realized that Pakistan was not the strong ally that he had envisioned them to be. However, things were about to get much worse for the Shah himself.
In 1979, the Shah of Iran was ousted in an uprising led by the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a hitherto exiled religious leader who transformed the Monarchy in to an Islamic Republic. The Ayatollah was deeply opposed to the US due to their concentrated efforts to keep Pahlavi in power, and cut off all diplomatic ties with them, in one of his first major foreign policy decisions. He also severed ties with Saudi Arabia, due to their support for Wahhabism, which was in direct conflict with his own Shia faith. These moves contributed greatly in alienating Pakistan, who, under the leadership of General Zia Ul Haq, were counting on both US and Saudi support to neutralize the Russian threat in Afghanistan.
Since the days of the revolution, the alliance between Pakistan and Iran has been rather frayed. Iran has always disapproved of Pakistan’s support for the US, especially during their war on terror. They have accused the US of disturbing the peace in the region and facilitating the growth of Saudi backed terrorist cells in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Even though the Ayatollah Khomeini has been replaced with Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei as the Supreme Leader of Iran, and their President today is, the relatively moderate, Hassan Rouhani; both have been quite uncompromising in their position against the US and Saudi Arabia.
In recent years the discord between Iran and Saudi Arabia has evolved even further, due to Saudi interference in Yemen and Syria. While talking to a religious gathering Rouhani stated that “Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and their support of terrorists in Yemen and Syria are main hurdles to improve ties between Tehran and Riyadh. Saudi Arabia should stop backing terrorists”. He also chose to call out Saudi Arabia for their alliance with the US as well, saying “They (Saudi Arabia) act cordially towards the enemies of Islam while having the opposite behavior towards the Muslim people of Bahrain and Yemen”.
Pakistan, for their part, have attempted to abstain from taking sides in this conflict. While the Nawaz Sharif led government is a great supporter of the Saudis, they did endear themselves to Iran by unanimously voting to stay out of the military alliance formed by the Saudis for their fight in Yemen and Syria.
However, all this goodwill was lost when they announced their membership to the Islamic Military Alliance (IMA), a 32-member council formed by Saudi Arabia, made up of Muslim majority countries. This is because the alliance, quite conspicuously, left out all countries with Shia majorities, including Iran and Iraq. The situation was further exacerbated when the ex-Chief of Army Staff of Pakistan, Raheel Sharif was appointed the Commander-in-Chief of the alliance.
Iran’s contentious relationship with the US has also been a huge thorn in Pakistan’s side. A 2012 US Department of State Country Report on Terrorism stated that “despite its pledge to support the stabilization of Iraq, Iran continued to provide lethal support, including weapons, training, funding, and guidance, to Iraqi Shia militant groups targeting U.S. and Iraqi forces, as well as civilians”. More recently, while addressing the United Nations assembly, President Trump talked about how the current regime in Tehran was on “the path of poverty, bloodshed and terror” and reiterated his desire to reevaluate the Iran Nuclear deal signed in 2015, calling it “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into”, as well as “an embarrassment to the United States”.
In his own United nations address President Rouhani took a defiant stance against President Trump, saying “I declare to you the Islamic Republic of Iran will not be the first country to violate the agreement, but it will respond decisively and resolutely to its violation by any party” and called the American President a “rogue newcomer”.
The alliance formed between Saudi Arabia and the US against Iran, has left Pakistan in a precarious position. While their support for the US and the Saudis has been well documented, Pakistan has always avoided aggravating Iran and both countries have made a conscious effort to keep their relations amicable. However, the US government’s rising skepticism over the regime in Tehran, as well as the Saudis’ attempts to discredit the government, has left Pakistan playing a treacherous balancing act while being stuck among their neighbors to the West, and two of their oldest allies.
In order to find a harmonious and satisfactory resolution to these difficulties, Pakistan needs to first set its priorities straight. The most profitable route to the future would be to revive their dwindling trade with Iran in every sector from energy to education. As Pakistan starts putting its economic interest first the focus should be on reviving the Iran-Pakistan pipeline. This would go a long way in improving relations.
Pakistan then need to turn their attention inwards and focus on the problems that have shrouded their nation, before entering into another ‘war of terror’ for a foreign country. In this endeavor they could greatly benefit from Iran’s help. Not only could the two nations unite against extremist factions cropping up in Afghanistan once again, they could also assist one another in finding a peaceful resolution to the Baloch separatist movement.
Both countries have had to deal with various Baloch Nationalist groups who, on several occasions, have resorted to violence and terrorist acts in order to get their message across to the powers that be. By working together, the two states can ensure that the entire region is rid of the nefarious individuals that have been working so hard to destabilize it and finally find a suitable compromise that benefits all parties involved.
Pakistan also needs to be, unequivocally clear with the Saudis that they will refuse to take part in any conflict, if it is based along sectarian lines. In this way they can avoid the sectarian violence and protests that have cropped up all around the country in the past.
For far too long, Pakistan has been used by external forces to advance their own agendas and this has led to an unprecedented level of unrest and an overwhelming security situation in the country. It would be easy to say that Pakistan can make it through this perilous environment on their own, but that is not going to be easy. The growing threat of terrorism and the always changing nature of world politics necessitates that they need good allies to achieve success in the future. In Iran, they might have just such a friend.