On the 14th of December, six Pakistani soldiers were killed and fourteen were seriously injured when terrorists attacked their convoy near Pakistan’s border with Iran. As a result, Pakistan has summoned the Iranian Ambassador so that Islamabad can be assured that all is being done on both sides of the border to prevent future heinous attacks. According to Pakistan’s Foreign Office, it was important for both sides to establish “The need for an effective border coordination mechanism to prevent such incidents in future was also underscored”. It was simultaneously reported that Iran offered its sincere condolences to Pakistan for the martyrdom of its soldiers in the terrorist ambush.
And yet while the summoning of an ambassador is typically a diplomatic tool invoked during a time of supreme strain in bilateral relations, the atmosphere surrounding the summoning of the Iranian Ambassador in Islamabad occurs within a very different framework. Over the last several years, Pakistan and Iran have engaged in a meaningful rapprochement after relations became highly strained beginning in the 1980s and into the 1990s owing primarily to difference in policy towards Afghanistan. Today however, the old ghosts of disagreements past are largely far away although there remain crucial areas in the reconciliation process that must be urgently addressed in order for the two partners to put aside lingering differences for the mutual benefit of both neighbours.
This year marked an important milestone in south-south pan-Asian cooperation when during the summer, intelligence heads from China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran all gathered for a substantial meeting in Islamabad to discuss a future Afghanistan peace process and related regional anti-terror issues. This was not only significant as it demonstrated that quite unlike during the 1980s and 1990s, Iran and Russia were willing, able and enthusiastic about sitting with China and Pakistan to discuss the crisis in Afghanistan, but it also demonstrated that the four major states have developed a deep enough sense of trust to share crucial intelligence regarding matters which effect the collective security of each country.
And yet while on the major issue of Afghanistan there is increased strategic cooperation and political solitary shown between Pakistan and Iran as well as other regional partners, on the issue of specific terror groups operating on both sides of the Pakistan-Iran border, recent events have demonstrated that far more work has to be done and that furthermore, Iranian officials (especially so-called moderate political factions) need to grasp that many of Pakistan’s enemies are also Iran’s enemies in equal measure.
To understand why this is the case, one must return to 2017 when ten Iranian border guards were martyred by terrorists operating from Pakistan’s Balochistan province. This event was eerily similar to the recent martyrdom of fourteen Pakistani soldiers whose terrorist murderers are thought to have been operating in the neighbouring Iranian province of Sistan and Baluchestan. In this sense, both events represent the equal and opposite of one another and as such, the steps required to prevent such similar events from happening again are literally identical.
And yet rather than call for solidarity against common threats across the border, Iran offered a somewhat counter-intuitive response to the vicious attack on its police in 2017. Geopolitical expert Andrew Kroybko detailed Tehran’s reaction at the time in the following way:
“While it’s indeed true that this act of terrorism did in fact happen and that the perpetrators purportedly struck from the Pakistani side of the border, Islamabad in no way condones this act of violence or had anything to do with it; to the contrary, the Pakistani officials have harshly condemned the terrorists and offered condolences to the Iranians.
Tehran’s reaction, however, wasn’t what one would initially expect. Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Bahram Qassemi said that:
‘The Pakistani government should be held accountable for the presence and operation of these vicious groups on its soil. Carrying out subversive and terrorist operations by armed bandits and grouplets operating as proxies for those known for promoting violence, extremism and Takfirism on the Iranian-Pakistani border is condemned and unacceptable. The countries that are after joining anti-terrorist coalitions must answer how they are incapable of countering armed bandits and terrorist groups on their own soil’.
This is a hyper-politicized statement which clearly indicates that all is not well in Iranian-Pakistani relations, and truth be told, the two sides do have a storied history. It’s not the point of this article to delve too deeply into that, but the most recent issue has to do with former Pakistani Chief of Army Staff and retired General Raheem Sharif taking charge of the Saudi-led international military coalition. Nevertheless, regardless of what one’s position may be on that topic, it’s not the time or place to insert politicized rhetoric at such a sensitive moment in bilateral relations. However, it’s predictable that Iran would indeed react that way, which leads to the next point about who may have really been behind the latest terrorist attack in order to produce this desired response.
And yet as early as 2016 Korybko highlighted the fact that not only does Pakistan’s Balochistan and Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan face the same kind of threat from the same set of terrorists with often identical foreign backers, but that such a reality threatens the mutual security of both neighbouring provinces of the two nations and the important ports (Pakistan’s Gwadar and Iran’s Chabahar) therein. Korynko further pointed out that while it is well known that India’s intelligence agency RAW is the main international backer of anti-Pakistan terror in Balochistan, that both New Delhi and Tehran appeared to be almost wilfully ignorant of the fact that the RAW sponsored terror in Pakistan’s Balochistan would inevitably blow-back in the direction of the Indian funded Chabahar port in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan.
This grim prognostication from 2016 was vindicated by a tragic suicide bombing in Chabahar earlier in December of 2018. Kroybko summarised this year’s terror attack in Chabahar in the following way:
“The general concept put forth and vindicated in hindsight after the latest events is that US-Indian support for BLA and Daesh terrorism against Pakistan will inevitably spread across the border into the Iranian province of Sistan and Baluchistan that hosts the strategic Chabahar port, which could in turn hamper the efficacy of this project for connecting India to Central Asia and ultimately “balancing” Russian and Chinese influence there. More importantly, however, it could derail India’s long-term ambitions to make itself a key player in the Afghan peace process through the patronage networks that the NSTC’s eastern branch could create with time”.
Thus, while India appears to be cutting off its nose to spite its face by risking RAW backed terror in Pakistan blowing over the border into Iran where India’s major investment is located, Iran must accept the reality of the situation rather than pretend that its Indian partner has clean hands when it comes to the regions of south-eastern Iran and south-western Pakistan.
Here, Korybko presents the following possible solution:
“Iran also has to ask itself whether it’s even worth hosting the Chabahar Corridor anymore in the first place after India’s recklessness in contributing to the Hybrid War on CPEC in one way or another was responsible for endangering the Islamic Republic’s security at this very sensitive time of sustained international pressure against it. Responsible decision makers in Tehran should be troubled by the fact that they’re taking on extra security risks by supporting an as-yet-unprofitable project that’s being inadvertently subverted by their own Indian partner, all while getting nothing in return at this moment other than a grandiose Bollywood-assurances that this “master plan” will eventually work out. At the very least, Iran should make its continued cooperation on this project conditional on India curtailing its Hybrid War on CPEC.
Going further, Iran would do well to deepen its incipient multidimensional strategic partnership with Pakistan, particularly in the field of hard and “soft” security and with a specific focus on countering Hybrid War threats through joint “Democratic Security” measures. One tangible step that it could take in this direction is to explore the possibility of creating an Iranian version of the “Overseas Pakistani Baloch Unity” (OPBU) initiative spearheaded by Dr. Jumma for reintegrating wayward Baloch into mainstream society, as well as carrying out joint border exercises with Pakistan and raising international awareness about the BLA and other relevant terrorist groups at international fora. Ideally, their joint Russian and Chinese strategic partners could aid with these initiatives and also provide consultative support because of their shared interests in defeating terrorism”.
Likewise, Pakistani analyst Agha Hussain authored the following regarding the potential for win-win Iran-Pakistan cooperation within the framework of other major regional trends
“India’s downgrading of previously cordial ties with Iran based on trade relations due to US sanctions on Iran is reminiscent of the fragility of what Pakistanis have tended to overrate as good Indo-Iranian relations. Examples of this fragility have been witnessed before, unfortunately unexploited by Pakistan’s defunct-as-always foreign policy management. India’s abandonment under US pressure of the Iran-Pakistan-India Peace Pipeline in 2009 and voting against Iran at the IAEA in 2005 in exchange for an illegal US incentive to enhance nuclear cooperation with it (India is a nonsignatory of the NPT) as well as its ideological affinity for Israel based on mutual anti-Muslim sentiment are such examples. Indo-Iranian interests in Afghanistan do not align, but have not historically clashed either due to Iran’s lack of involvement in Afghanistan prior to recent contacts with the Taliban who are mostly viewed negatively by India. The incentive for combating anti-Iranian forces in Afghanistan – who are also anti-Pakistan – is far greater than anything Iran gains from facilitating an Indian entry into the Central Asia market via Chabahar and then the problematic Afghanistan land route. India’s support for disruptive elements in Balochistan itself is contradictory to India’s Chabahar ambitions, and thus India-Iran relations are frail enough for a competent Pakistan to overcome.
To add to the exaggerations of Pakistan and Iran’s mutual suspicions of each other, the Pakistani military was the one which initiated the late-2017 rapprochement with Iran. The issue of the Indian spy, Kulbushan Yadav, apprehended in Pakistan in 2016 after crossing over into Pakistani Balochistan from Iran, seemed at first potentially disastrous for Iran-Pakistan relations but nothing big came of it. Yadav had been based out of Chabahar, Iran, which recently suffered a terrorist attack by an extremist group based in the wider Balochistan region. He had a valid Iranian visa on his Indian passport, which bore a fake Muslim name and he had been tasked with disrupting the progress of CPEC and the Gwadar Port. His arrest was followed by large networks of Baloch insurgents being busted by security forces and also increased contact and talks of enhanced economic, security and cultural-religious ties between Pakistan and Iran.
Iran also has good relations with Pakistan’s ally China, is a major venue for Chinese investment (in competition with that of India) and has lately expressed much positivity in its rhetoric regarding Pakistan in the wake of enhanced economic-military relations compared to the dull period of the early 2000s. Goodwill gestures trickle through between Iran and Pakistan, with Islamic unity a central theme. Indian-occupied Kashmir has been mentioned after a long hiatus in speeches by its Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei in recent times and Iran made a notable gesture to Pakistan on 14 August by celebrating the day with Pakistani flags hoisted on banners in Tehran displaying the Indian-occupied part as part of Pakistan.
Baloch separatism as a means of threatening both Iran and Pakistan has been proposed by prominent American strategists and anti-Iran terror groups inside Pakistan are even covertly supported by Israel’s MOSSAD. Parts of Afghanistan act as a sanctuary for such terrorists.
Both nations have also invested large amounts of resources in successfully combating Takfiri terrorism; Iran in the Middle East against terrorists backed by its US-Gulf State-Israeli foes and Pakistan at home against deadly terrorist groups backed by India, the Kabul regime and by the CIA/Blackwater as well in the years leading up to the deterioration of US-Pak relations in 2011. ISIS has faced defeat across the Middle East and Levant and the US currently follows a policy of relocating ISIS proxies to Afghanistan as Iran has noted to Pakistan in the recent past”.
When taken as a whole the following aspects of the situation must be understood at a holistic and unambiguous level:
–India’s reckless sponsorship of terror in Pakistan’s Balochistan province poses not just a hypothetical but a very real threat to Iran’s national security and long term territorial integrity
–With India’s position as a close US partner beyond doubt, it remains to be seen how much longer the US will passively allow for India and Iran to cooperate in Chabahar and the wider North-South Transport Corridor (NSTC), before Washington gives India an “us or them” style ultimatum in which India would almost certainly choose a partnership with Washington over one with Tehran. In some respects this is already happening albeit in a deceptively incremental manner.
–Iranian moderates who unlike more conservative elements of the Iranian leadership classes tend to gloss over the similarities between the plight of Kashmiris and that of Iran’s noted Palestinian cause, those in Tehran who have yet to make the connection ought to realise that Pakistan and Iran share more contemporary similarities in terms of geopolitical outlook than many have cared to examine.
As such, there is room to expand Iran-Pakistan relations at both a pragmatic level of anti-terror cooperation as well as a partnership framed against the background of the US needing Pakistan’s assistance in Afghanistan in spite of Washington’s growing strategic partnership with India. Donald Trump’s recent letter to Pakistan’s Prime Minsieter Imran Khan demonstrates that in many ways, the US needs Pakistan far more than Pakistan has ever genuinely needed controversial “support” from Washington. In this respect, Pakistan actually has more options to leverage its would-be duel Iran-US partnership than does India. This is the case because while Pakistan’s PTI government is tending towards a more multipolar approach to foreign policy – India’s BJP government has largely become a hostage to US fortune in spite of some specific but ultimately short term examples of India balancing relations between the US and Russia.
Because of this, the summoning of Iran’s Ambassador in Islamabad should be viewed as a constructive exercise in which Pakistan must tell the Iranian side that cooperation against a mutual terror threat is not only essential but that one of Iran’s partners (India) appears more concerned with destabilising Pakistan than it cares about its own shared interests with Iran in Chabahar. This reality will become all the more clear as the US tries to force India to gradually downgrade or otherwise exploit its deceptively win-win partnership with Tehran.