Turkey and Pakistan are about to enter an intensive period of talks regarding a proposed bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) between the two states. Based on the enthusiasm displayed in Islamabad and Ankara for Beijing’s One Belt–One Road trading initiative, combined with the historic good will between the two countries, it would seem as though the FTA’s consecration is a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ and further more, the answer to ‘when’ is likely ‘very soon’.
Such a trade agreement between Pakistan and Turkey could help to ease the flow of goods between East Asia and the Mediterranean, thus forming a crucial segment of the One Belt–One Road network. However, there is one crucial element that needs to fill the geographical gap between Pakistan and Turkey and that is Iran.
Turning potential problems into guaranteed mutual opportunities
Pakistan’s southern border with Iran provides an ideal opportunity to not only create a modern link between China and Turkey via Pakistan and Iran, but furthermore, such an inter-connectivity scheme could accelerate the much needed rapprochement between Islamabad and Tehran that is already under way.
Furthermore, Iran-Pakistan cooperation could once and for all, dispel the myth that the Chinese built Gwadar port on Pakistan’s Indian Ocean south cost is somehow a ‘rival’ port to Iran’s Chabahar on the Gulf of Oman. India, whose investment helped to build the modern Chabahar Port, is keen to emphasise the ‘rival’ narrative in respect of the two ports despite the fact that Gwadar is a Panamax Port with a far greater capacity than Chabahar. India seeks to use Chabahar to not only retard the extend of a rapprochement between Pakistan and Iran, but also to convince Iran that India’s North-South Transport Corridor is somehow superior to the much more expansive Chinese One Belt–One Road.
In reality, the short sea journey from Gwadar to Chabahar could help complete an important segment of the belts and roads leading from China’s Pacific coast to the Mediterranean. In tandem with this, Pakistan and Iran could also build important railways and highways across the Iran-Pakistan border. These roads would forever bind Iran and Pakistan together in respect of security cooperation against the mutual threat of terrorism in Pakistan’s Balochistan Province as well as Iran’s province of Sistan and Baluchestan.
The US-Afghan problem
The lethal combination of de-facto US and Indian backed terror groups in Pakistan’s Balochistan Province are clearly intended to make the cutting edge Gwadar Port appear to be a risky area to would be commercial partners. It is no coincidence that this is one of the many reasons the US refuses to put an end to the otherwise futile war in Afghanistan and likewise, this is one of the areas where Indo-American cooperation poses the greatest potential threat to Pakistan, due to India’s historic support for terrorist groups in Balochistan. Likewise, the US presence in Afghanistan is also designed to encourage the expansion of anti-Iranian Takfiri terrorist groups on Iran’s eastern borders.
If Pakistan and Iran secured a Gwadar to Chabahar maritime belt in addition to a trans-Baloch road between the two countries, this could be a way of ensuring both long term trade and security cooperation between two countries which seek to reap mutual benefits from the former and mutual safety from the latter.
In order to realise the advantages outlined above, it would behove both Pakistan and Turkey to include Iran in a trilateral free trade agreement. This way, Iran–a country already subjected to deeply unjust US sanctions could band together with Turkey and Pakistan– two former US allies who could easy fall victim to the US sanctions hammer due to their rapidly deteriorating relations with Washington. This not only creates a potentially sanctions proof safety net, but it creates a broader prosperity net tying Pakistan, Iran and Turkey to China, a country which is strong enough to resist any US bullying of her Eurasian trading partners.
Syria and Iraq
The joint security agreements between Iraq, Iran and Turkey which came about during the short-lived attempted Kurdish insurgency in Iraq in September and October of 2017, demonstrated the extent of Iraq’s reconciliation with Turkey as well as post-Saddam Iraq’s long term commitment to an Iranian partnership. Far from being a detour on a would be belt and road linking Pakistan to Turkey, Iraq is a valuable tributary due to the country’s vast oil fields which are still in need of fresh investment after the devastating illegal US invasion of 2003.
Likewise, Syria’s eastern oil deposits and easy access to the Mediterranean which is safeguarded by the permanent Russian Naval base at Tartus, would provide safe access to the south-eastern Mediterranean for goods coming as far away as China, just as sure as the Dardanelles provides an equally important mouth to the Mediterranean for such goods. The fact that China is keen to be the leader in rebuilding post-conflict Syria means that Beijing would be all too keen to include Syria as a final stop along the belts and roads leading from the Pacific to the Mediterranean. Syria is of course eager to receive the post-war investment China has committed to delivering and this multilateral project could not only revive Syria’s economy but could help to reduce tensions with Turkey stemming from Ankara’s hated invasion of Syria as part of Operation Euphrates Shield.
A Turkey-Pakistan free trade agreement is a very big and very important step towards harmonising the all important Pacific to Mediterranean trading route. However, without including Iran, such a route would at best be only halfway functional. This is a golden opportunity to create a multilateral agreement between Pakistan, Iran and Turkey which also helps draw Syria and Iraq into the fold of a wider “win-win” alliance whose economic realities are authored in China rather than a Middle East that is still reeling from decades of destruction US meddling. By removing the problem to wider Middle East–Eurasian cooperation, all that is left is potential and in this case, the potential is monumental.