A thorough misreading of present regional geopolitical circumstances, an ignorance of current shifts in alliances and quite possibly an encouragement from India produced an angry tirade of accusations against Pakistan by Iranian generals days after the bombing that murdered 27 Iranian soldiers on 13 February. The crisis created by the accusations acts as an aberration amidst a trend of generally improving Pakistan-Iran presents a dire need for both Iran and Pakistan to learn certain lessons about each other. A potent combination of present day and more historical, deep-seated factors influencing the state behaviour of Iran and Pakistan produced the crisis and it’s important to know their exact nature, so as to get an idea of where they’re headed and what the two states can do in response. The overlap between the lessons when it comes to both countries is also significant, necessitating a close partnership between the two.
Iran’s aggressive revolutionary/resistance rhetoric and its justification
Since the Revolution in 1979, there has been an aggressive and destructive path formulated and taken by Iran’s rivals, primarily Israel, across the Middle East with containment of Iran as a central objective due to its leadership role among actors and states that have resisted the former’s designs. Iran’s boisterous revolutionary rhetoric is well-tailored to the country’s circumstances and needs, especially considering that its ties to its allies in the region are of a religious and ideological nature.
On the Middle Eastern front, Iran wields potent options to deter the invasion Israel yearns after, such the threat to block the Strait of Hormuz where much of the world’s oil and gas is shipped through from the Gulf States or utilize its ballistic missiles against Gulf state oil and gas industry infrastructure and ports. It would endanger the economies of far too many states throughout the world for such a disastrous invasion to even be attempted (not that Israel’s US lobbyists haven’t already tried and keep trying). Iranian allies across the Levant have also scored major victories which have handicapped the options available for Iran’s rivals to continue their expansionist agenda with the same vigour.
Despite this, Iranian paranoia about its security and constant emphasis on the usage of regional states by Israel and the US to target it remains rational and necessary. That it views its vast and wild 900 km long border with Pakistan and the Baluchestan region through the same paranoid lens is understandable as well. Following on from this, it is only natural for Iran to cite often and angrily the role of its rivals in attempting to use this land as a place from which to sabotage or attack it.
Iranian Revolutionary dogma toward Pakistan
What has been reckless on Iran’s part, however, has been to ignore Pakistan’s own security dilemma with regard to the Baluchestan region whilst demanding Pakistan do more to reign in anti-Iran terrorists. It has demonstrated a profound ignorance of several factors that go against both the accusation that Pakistan is doing nothing about anti-Iran groups and the accusations, recently made by some IRGC generals, that the ISI is sheltering such groups. The fact that Pakistan has been engaged in multiple hard-fought military operations crucial to the very survival of the country since 2009 in the northwest, the fact that Pakistan has devoted great resources to rebuilding and uplifting terror-ravaged areas in both the former FATA (now part of KPK) and also Balochistan, the fact that Pakistan cannot so easily secure the vast Balochistan province whilst it needs to concentrate on both the Afghan and India front and so on are factors Iran seems ignorant of.
Pakistan did not join the war on Yemen when the GCC states asked it, nor did it help train Syrian rebel-terrorists upon their request and continued to maintain a stance of opposing attempts to topple the Iran-aligned Syrian government. Iran has, despite these realities, sought to conjure out of thin air a high-alert situation with Pakistan where there is a large anti-Iran war in the works on Pakistani territory.
Notably, support to terrorist groups in Pakistani Balochistan against Iran in the past by Israel’s intelligence services has not come with the approval of the Pakistani government and Pakistan also assisted Iran in nabbing the Jundullah chief Abdolmalek Rigi in 2010. Pakistan would have had billions of dollars worth of direct aid and a consortium of anti-Iran states at its back immediately if it had allowed its territory to be used to attack Iran. A full-on war against Iran utilizing the vast Balochistan front would be in the talks if Pakistan had signified willingness toward enabling this.
Iran seems, however, to be shoehorning Pakistan into the ‘US-Saudi-Israeli camp’ category. Doing so achieves nothing and is not justified.
This can be chalked up to Iran being busy in the Middle East. However, it is inexcusable for Iran to assail Pakistan and not show acknowledgement of the issue of India’s nefarious role in Balochistan. It is hard to find, in Iran’s media or its government’s statements, mention or acknowledgement of Kulbhushan Yadav and the fact that he was operating out of Iran to destabilize the part of Pakistan Iran wants – and benefits from – the stabilization of.
Iran’s place in India’s West-approved bigger-picture: is the Islamic Republic letting its guard down and not seeing the writing on the wall?
Given Yadav’s admission in his second confessional video to India having planned a terrorist attack on Pakistani diplomatic targets in Zahedan, it is hard to speculate that Iran knew the nature of his activities during his time working in Chabahar. Iran also did not corroborate the erratic Indian claim that Pakistan had kidnapped the ‘innocent’ Yadav from Iranian territory. It is still, however, irrational and unreasonable for Iran to not raise the issue with the Indians instead of with Pakistan. Invoking Pakistan-Saudi ties but not invoking the India factor when referring to eradicating cross-border terrorism reeks of high hypocrisy on Iran’s part and Pakistan would be well within its right to respond angrily, although Pakistan has notably kept its tone positive.
There are certain key and very currently-relevant realities at work in the region which make Iran’s ignorance of Pakistan’s security dilemma vis-à-vis India many times worse than the Pakistani ignorance, as perceived by Iran and its media (judging by the spin Press TV constantly applied to the MbS visit to Pakistan), of Saudi Arabia’s contribution to extremism and terrorism the world over or its ties with the aggressive Israel. First and most obvious is the obvious fact that India tries to destabilize Balochistan where the lawlessness directly helps terrorist groups (Balochistan is a hotbed of smuggling and thus untraceable networks of money for terrorist groups to utilize).
Second is Iran’s own seemingly oblivious and unwitting placement-by-default into a geopolitical, geostrategic and geoeconomic Indo-US framework to achieve multiple mutually-dovetailing goals of the two states many of which involve policies hostile to Pakistan and ultimately harmful to Iran as well. India and the US, already engaged in attempting to ‘contain’ China in the Indian Ocean region with naval rivalry, have rapidly upgraded their military ties in recent years. India has earned the mantle of the USA’s ‘100 year long partner’ and has been named by the US defence establishment as a major partner in Afghanistan, the warzone that acted as the source of the inevitable deterioration of Pak-US ties between the end of the Musharraf era and the major escalations of tensions in the tumultuous 2011.
India’s North South Trade Corridor from India to Russia and passing through several states in between is similar to China’s Belt Road Initiative in terms of a large economy with powerful export capabilities seeking to bring more country markets within feasible range of its traders. It has a highly geostrategic component to it (and one of concern for Pakistan and Iran) in the form of the eastern component of it in Iran and Afghanistan.
India’s heavy investment in large basic infrastructure projects alongwith major transport facilities in Afghanistan are complimented by similarly large investments in rail and road projects in Iran to connect Chabahar port to the Afghan border. Iran signed in 2018 a trilateral transit agreement to facilitate Indian goods passing through it to Afghanistan, happy with its position as middleman for India to consolidate its influence in Afghanistan. Consensus in the Iranian camp seems clear on all of this being beneficial the highly-sanctioned country.
India’s investment in the non-ideal Afghan market is oriented less by the charm Afghanistan holds for Indian exporters and more by the displacement in the Afghan market of Pakistan as the major source of imports. Afghanistan, from where India has supported anti Pakistan groups which includes Baloch separatists, is very important to India for pressuring Pakistan from both sides and India would see the pro-India Kabul regime less economically reliant on Pakistan.
Of interest to Iran here, however, isn’t only that India shows no sign of ceasing its support for Baloch separatists. It is the fact that the US approves of India’s Iran and Afghanistan project and has granted sanctions waivers for India that should compel Iran to take a second look at India’s intentions. The US unilaterally sanctions Iran as one of numerous ways to coerce it into submission and makes the prospect of buying from or selling to Iran perilous for non-US companies as well. It has, in the past, worked hard to sabotage states and private entities investing in or buying from Iran without a care for their own benefit from trade with Iran and it general applies a zero-sum, aggressive mode of economic warfare to bring Iran to its knees.
The US would not lose a chance to harm Iran and would not take measures which would contribute directly to the growth of the Iranian economy. The US allowing a large foreign economy to invest in Iran to such an extent thus signifies another angle through which the US sees India’s bigger-picture for Iran, Afghanistan and the region; one where the US is sure it sees no real relief or good news for Iran. It would also not commit to support India’s regional strategy if it not see a foothold for itself in there from which to sabotage regional rivals, Iran being numero uno on that list.
The waiver, granted for India’s activities in the Chabahar port and the railway line India is constructing from Chabahar to the Afghan border, represents a US-blessing to India’s Afghanistan ambitions and this should ideally make Iranian pundits seriously ponder whether Iran should be enabling India’s consolidation in Afghanistan. It would be irrational for Tehran to believe India, empowered by its greater status as a provider of important commodities and services to the Afghan market, will act to defuse tensions or act as a buffer between Iran and the US military presence in Afghanistan.
There is yet another aspect of US approval of India’s Iran-Afghanistan investments which should worry Iran. The very first sanctions legislations from the US targeting Iran, notably its oil and gas industry, came from the same interest group in US domestic politics that would succeed in torpedoing the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (or JCPOA) in 2018: the Israel Lobby, especially the behemoth American Israeli Public Affairs Committee which has undue influence over the US Congress. Sanctions on Iran have continued to be sustained and adapted through the machinations of this same interest group throughout their history.
The Israel Lobby, whose pioneering in the 90s of the concept of ‘secondary sanctions’ pertaining to Iran and attempts to have the US punish big oil companies developing Iran’s major gas fields highlights where the zero-sum aspect of US economic warfare against Iran comes from, has not agitated against the waivers for India. Knowing how close Israel is to India in terms of military relations, ‘counter-terror’ and also the ideological affinity of Hindutvadis for Zionists, Israel quite clearly approves India’s moves as well.
As observed by the author in this article, the US Treasury’s secretive but powerful Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence would have leapt at India’s activities in Iran and sought to put a halt to them had Israel not tacitly backed India’s designs. This is a particular point to note because this unit, set up in 2004, has remained staffed by AIPAC-connected officials who either maintained dual US-Israeli nationalities or devoted their professional services to other forms of pro-Israel lobbying.
Iran has always recognized Israel as the main driving force behind Iran’s conflict with the US and NATO and has formed its strategic posture across the Middle East, especially the Levant, accordingly. Israel still gladly promotes war with Iran despite the disaster it would bring the world over, and it would do well for Iran to remember that an India with close ties to both the US and Israel and an Indian regional trade corridor involving Iran with the US and Israel’s stamp of approval will not lead to a situation where Iran doesn’t find itself confronting hostile foreign designs closer to its frontiers.
If Iran does not see the pro-West (and thus pro-Israeli) regional zone of influence India seeks to establish with Iran as a vital node as a threat, Pakistan must through communication clarify this reality to its neighbour. It is of supreme importance to both, although considering Iran’s greater experience in playing its geopolitical cards the right way (it does, after all, have highly Machiavellian rivals) it is reasonable to expect Iran to realize this without a nudge in the right direction from Pakistan.
A persisting potential for alliance
Regardless, a Pakistan that attaches significance to its own well-being by actively seeking out alliances to counter India’s ambitious designs in its two neighbouring states to the west would take it upon itself to point out these realities to Tehran. It could combine this with an in-depth briefing on the Yadav trial where India has performed poorly at the ICJ in a diplomatic offensive the likes of which it has never waged before, appealing to Iran’s national security obsession, its pride as an ancient and sovereign state and its resistance-oriented mindset. Thus far, there seem to be no signs of this being done by the Pakistani side, or at least the military since the civilian government does not so much as even discuss topics outside the domain of economics and commerce. Despite Iran being the first foreign country to invite Imran Khan upon his entering into PM office, he has not visited Iran even once, in stark comparison to multiple visits to the Gulf Arabs.
It is apparent that both sides require intimate communication and exchange of their concerns about third parties so as to realize that the overlap in the genuine interests of the two is considerably large.
Both states have similar security dilemmas from a geopolitical perspective, albeit Iran has demonstrated more acknowledgement of this reality in its conduct as a state than Pakistan has. The benefits of Iran and Pakistan as close partners can secure many strategic victories for the two in their regional neighbourhood and both states can derive stability and strength from the mutually beneficial partnership.