Pakistan and Iran’s relations over the years have been like a roller coaster ride, getting steeper and steeper with every twist and turn with the passage of time. If the present Pak-Iran relationship can be described in one word, it would be “dysfunctional”, without any doubt. The recent border skirmishes, the unprovoked cross-border firing incidents by the Iranian border security forces, have especially, tensed up the relationship.
However, to begin with, Pakistan and Iran enjoyed a cordial relationship in the 1950s and Iran was the first country to recognize Pakistan. The Shah of Iran was the first foreign Head of State to visit Pakistan. In the 1965 Indo-Pak war, Iran supported Pakistan and supplied qualified nurses, medical supplies and 5000 tons of petroleum products to support Pakistan. When the US suspended military aid to Pakistan, the Shah of Iran purchased 90 sabre fighter jets from Germany and supplied them to Pakistan. Iran even considered oil embargo against India during the course of the war. Pakistan and Iran granted each other MFN status and became close allies.
In the 1971 Indo-Pak conflict, Iran again supported Pakistan militarily and, on the diplomatic front, Iran called the Indian attacks an act of aggression. On the global forums, Iran justified its support to Pakistan because it was concerned that Pakistan’s instability will have a spillover effect over the country.
Regime change in Iran and Soviet invasion of Afghanistan
After the Iranian Revolutionary Guards overthrew the Shah of Iran’s regime, Pakistan was one of the first countries to recognize the Khomeini regime. But despite Pakistan’s Recognition of new Iranian Regime in 1979, Pakistan was considered non friendly state and in due course of time Iran started favoring India over Pakistan; in fact by late 90s, Iran viewed India as its strategic partner in the region. The relationship between the two previously friendly countries started deteriorating during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan when Iran and Pakistan started supporting different camps of rival rebels who were fighting the Soviets. India and Iran supported the Persian speaking Northern Alliance militia while Pakistan supported the Pashtun and Arab militias. After the Soviet withdrawal in the late 80s, a power struggle between the two proxies started, which put the already declining relationship at an all-time low.
Gwadar and Chahbahar Ports
In 2003, Pakistan government initiated the plan for development of Gwadar port to bring in foreign investment, and make Gwadar an Industrial Hub and a unique gateway for Central Asian and Far East countries to access the Indian Ocean through the Silk route. Pakistan has leased Gwadar port to China for infrastructural and operational development. The purpose was to make Pakistan a transit route for all Chinese trades done with European, African & Middle Eastern countries. The plan was meant for commercial benefit of Pakistan which Iran considers to be a major threat to its own business routes, thereby, prompting Iran to work with India to rebuild its Chahbahar port which these two strategic partners had built partially in the 90s. India was quick to accept the offer as this would give India strategic access to Afghanistan and Central Asia and bypass trade routes via Pakistan. Another objective was to deprive Pakistan of the only route available to access land-locked Afghanistan.
India has committed to invest $85 Million to build Chahbahar port and Iran has given the port on lease to India for a period of 10 years. India and Iran have teamed up to somehow hinder and undermine the Gwadar port development. While attempting to do so, both Iran and India have teamed up by supporting Baloch rebels and terrorists within the Pakistani province of Balochistan. These Baloch rebels are not only involved in smuggling oil, drugs and human-trafficking but also armed with weapons and explosives. Moreover, in the garb of their separatist agenda, they have created trained militias who are involved in attacking the Pakistan Army convoys and cantonments, but are not restricted to such activities only. Evidence also suggests the same militias are engaged in killing Shiite pilgrims traveling through Balochistan to Iran, in order to instigate Shia-Sunni conflicts across Pakistan. The target killing of Shia minorities in Pakistan has always served as a major set-back for the Pakistani Governments across history, and draws extraordinary criticism from the entire world.
Iran Pakistan Gas Pipeline
The previous PPP led Pakistan government tried to mend its relationship with Iran by offering concessions and deals including the Iran-Gas Pipeline with Iran. Some experts are of the opinion that the Iran-Pakistan Gas pipeline was not in favor of Pakistan in the first place as the outgoing Pakistani government signed the deal in haste in a desperate move to leave a footprint of what they considered an achievement for their infamous ruling tenure between 2008 till 2013. In reality however, this Gas Contract was more in favor of Iran than it was for Pakistan as it contained clauses imposing heavy penalties should Pakistan fail to complete the pipeline within agreed time frame as per the contract.
It would cost a staggering total of $8 billion to lay the pipeline from Nawabshah to the Iranian border, and would that Pakistan failed to complete it before the time frame expired, as per clauses in the contract, it Pakistan would be subject to penalties amounting up to $3 million dollar per day. Also, looking at the price of the gas delivered to Pakistan, it would be around $15-$17 MMBTU approximately. The gas pipeline project was not feasible in first place due to US sanctions on Iran and Pakistan would consequently also face sanctions if they would commence trade with Iran. On the contrary, building an LNG terminal and importing LNG would have cost merely a few hundred million dollars instead of the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline that is going to cost $8 Billion.
Pakistan-Iran Border Skirmishes and non-state actors
For past few months, Iran has been blaming Pakistan without any strong evidence for supporting insurgency inside Iran and Pakistan alleging militants launch attacks on Iran from Pakistani side of border without presenting any such evidence. Iran has been using this excuse to hide its own failure in tackling anti-state militants and continues to blame Pakistan for its woes. The same border that Iran uses to arm its own proxies in Pakistan, is used by militants from within Iran to go back and forth. In fact, Iran is now using such baseless propaganda in the media to claim innocence and victimization, a tactic similar to the one India uses to blame Pakistan for cross-border militancy.
Recently, Iran raised a lot of hue and cry when supposedly five Iranian border guards were kidnapped in Feb 2014, Iran blamed that Pakistan based militants have taken them inside Pakistan and threatened to send forces inside Pakistan to recover them. Islamabad demanded evidence of their claims, which Tehran failed to furnish. After weeks of search and investigations, the allegedly kidnapped border guards were found inside Iran itself. The previous incident was not enough to shame Tehran, therefore, on 17th October 2004, Tehran once again alleged that two of its border guards were killed due to shelling from the Pakistani side of the border. To support its unsubstantiated assertions, Iranian forces crossed into Pakistan and attacked a Frontier corps. vehicle, killing one FC Soldier and injuring several others. Simultaneously, in a separate incident, Iranian troops took residents of a border village hostage for 6 hours and mentally tortured and abused the villagers.
Iran has been accusing Pakistan for long time and Pakistan has been showing patience by cooperating with Iran in every way it can by devising a border mechanism and intelligence sharing to stop militant incursion but Iran has been quick to blame Pakistan for every small incursion, not to mention the fact that Iran is unable to present any facts to substantiate these assertions.
Pakistan has been showing wisdom and patience for a long time and has been careful not to turn the not-so-friendly relationship into a hostile one with Iran. Despite the Iran-India alliance on Afghanistan and their hawkish tone on every single border incident, Pakistan has maintained a subtle stance to calm down Iran.
Iranian hand behind a planned rebellion in Pakistan
Iran has also maintained a very close relationship with shady role-players in Pakistan, like the self-proclaimed scholar Tahir-ul-Qadri, who the people have become quite familiar with in the recent past for his notorious claims of a chaotic revolution. In February 2014, this man visited Tehran and was received by none other than the ‘third’ in hierarchy in Iranian regime, Ayatollah Araki. Under normal circumstances, only senior government officials of a state would receive such a reception at the airport. Why did then Iran give such importance to the likes of Tahir-ul-Qadri? Also in 2013, Al Azhar scholars accused Tahir-ul-Qadri of receiving heavy funds from Iran. There remains no doubt in the minds of Pakistani people that this man is a stooge of Iran, and all his actions and strategies thus far only suggest that he is not a revolutionary, but a nuisance to the state, and in fact, certain think-tanks argue that his recent adventures were designed primarily to cause disarray between the institutions of Pakistan which could possibly trigger anarchy in the country as a whole. Fortunately however, the Pakistani intelligence agencies fore-warned the concerned institutions of his ambitions, thereby averting any mishaps preemptively.
Iran has been continuously testing Pakistan’s fortitude by accusing it of supporting insurgency in Iran, whereas on the other hand, is constantly in denial of supporting Baloch separatists, despite evidence being presented by Pakistan to undermine Gwadar port and using fake scholars like Tahir-ul-Qadri to misguide the masses. Iran should refrain from its interference inside Pakistan, knowing that Pakistan is fully capable of responding to any sort of aggression both militarily, as well as through political means.