Just as the PKK and its sister organisation PJAK are a mutual threat to both Turkey and Iran’s western frontier, so too are terror groups active on the Iran-Pakistan border a mutual threat to both countries that are best neutralised through joint efforts. This was proved beyond a shadow of a doubt when in February of this year a suicide bomber from Pakistan’s Balochistan frontier with Iran took the lives of 27 Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) soldiers and likewise the message was made doubly clear when last week, terrorists based in the neighbouring Iranian province of Sistan and Baluchestan crossed into Pakistan disguised as soldiers and martyred 14 innocent people at point blank range after boarding a bus on the Makran Coastal Highway.
As the Makran Coastal Highway attack came days before Pakistani Prime Minister’s first visit to Iran, it may well have been a calculated provocation designed to inflame Pakistan’s relations with Iran during a season when both countries had already experienced a degradation in relations due to Iran’s hyperbolic reaction to the 13 February attack. Mohammad Ali Jafari, at the time the commander-in-chief of the IRGC made inflammatory remarks about seeking “revenge” on Pakistan for an atrocity committed by a non-state terror group proscribed as an enemy of Pakistan. Jafari’s unambiguous comments which blamed Pakistani state institutions for the attack on the IRGC cast a new narrative over the region which lead one to logically conclude that India’s investments in the Iranian port at Chabahar combined with a misunderstanding of Pakistan’s partnership with Saudi Arabia, led Iranian officials into saying things that should not have been said about a potentially strategically important neighbour.
By contrast, after the Makran Coastal Highway attack, Pakistan launched a formal diplomatic complaint to Iran and the Foreign Minister stated that the issue would be a top priority during Imran Khan’s meeting with the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
News has now broken that a breakthrough has in fact been reached as Pakistan and Iran have agreed to form a joint border patrol “reaction force” that will see Pakistani and Iranian soldiers police an erstwhile porous border that has led to deeply unfortunate attacks on both countries from terrorists who have no regard for either Pakistani nor Iranian national sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Even before the announcement of the joint reaction force, there were indications that Iran’s top leadership had realised the errors that were made in February in respect of blaming Pakistan for an attack that should have been a clear indicator of the fact the further cooperation was urgently needed. Yesterday, Iran’s Supreme Leader Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei relieved Mohammad Ali Jafari of his duties as the IRGC commander-in-chief and replaced him with Brigadier General Hossein Salami. It is likely that the change of the guard in this respect was motivated by internal factors but the timing of the announcement has the optics of a good will gesture to Pakistan as Jafari was among the most unhinged when it came to slandering Pakistani state institutions in February. As geopolitical expert Andrew Korybko wrote last week, “the ball is in Iran’s court” and it seems that this time Tehran did in fact make the proper decision to favour win-win cooperation over totally unnecessary lose-lose antagonism and suspicion.
Overall, Iran and Pakistan have the potential to be important strategic partners in areas beyond the all-important matter of cross-border security and counter-terrorism cooperation. In the long term, Iran could form an important part of a wider CPEC+. Such a Belt and Road based trading structure could potentially see goods originating from China before travelling across CPEC to Gwadar, then being shipped to Iran where they could then either travel to north-west Eurasia via the Caucasus or otherwise into the Mediterranean via Iran’s Turkish neighbour, thus bypassing the Suez region in which Israel and other enemies of Iran hold a great deal of influence.
In terms of energy cooperation, the long anticipated pipeline from Iran into south Asia is a project that has been stalled but nevertheless holds great potential for new win-win energy exchange in the region.
Finally, as geopolitical expert Agha Hussain recently pointed out, if Iran is to bolster its pan-Islamic credentials at a time when the country is facing unique challenges from the west, Israel and parts of the Arab world, it would behove Tehran to embrace the cause of Kashmiri justice just as the country has since its inception as an Islamic Republic, embraced the cause of Palestinian justice. Not only would this help demonstrate that Iran’s Islamic Revolution is more than just a single issue geopolitical development but it would help to eliminate many of the false stereotypes that some Pakistanis have about Iran and that some Iranians have about Pakistan.
The task now for both countries is to make sure that the reaction force is well-equipped and that cooperation along the border can help to create a new era of win-win relations for both neighbours.