From rivals to partners: Pakistan and Iran’s diplomatic turnaround

F.M. Shakil, The Cradle, July 26, 2023 —

With the recent visit of Islamabad’s top army official, relations between the two Islamic Republics have taken a significant turn, potentially heralding a new era in diplomatic and defense ties amidst escalating mutual security threats on the porous border and from neighboring Afghanistan, in addition to China’s growing influence in the region.

In a significant move, Pakistan’s army chief, General Asim Munir, embarked on an official visit to Iran, marking a watershed moment for the two neighboring countries. The visit carries immense weight, considering the historically edgy relations between Islamabad and Tehran, especially concerning their ties with Kabul and the pressing issue of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) spreading its influence into the volatile and restive Balochistan region bordering Iran.

Notably, this high-profile interaction between Pakistan and Iran comes weeks after they, along with China, reached a trilateral security agreement. The meeting held in Tehran involved key figures, including Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, Iranian army chief Major General Mohammad Bagheri, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian, and the Commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) General Hossein Salami.

Thawing diplomatic relations 

It was the first high-profile interaction between Iran and Pakistan after years of chilly diplomatic relations, due in part to the US anti-Iran stance and in part to Saudi Arabia’s unwavering hostility toward Tehran – Riyadh wields significant financial, political, and religious clout in the country.

However, this visit signals a willingness to bridge the gap and foster stronger ties, particularly given Pakistan’s former army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s rumored defense accord signing during a previous visit to Tehran in 2019.

During the latest meeting, President Raisi subtly alluded to the challenges posed by “enemies” aiming to destabilize the region. He emphasized the need to transform the Pakistan-Iran border into a secure economic zone, promoting energy trade and border markets. The completion of the so-called “Peace Pipeline” infrastructure was also discussed. As Iran stands ready with its part of the infrastructure, there is palpable anticipation for Pakistan to fulfill its end of the agreement and set the wheels in motion for a transformative energy corridor.

Meanwhile, IRGC chief General Salami reinforced Raisi’s view that international political forces have created fissures among the Muslim nations in the region, stating:

“The IRGC is prepared to work in cooperation with the Pakistani Army to change the security conditions at the border between the two countries and turn them into economic borders”.

The Afghan agenda 

It has not been confirmed whether the two sides deliberated on the Afghan-based militant organizations, including the TTP, also known as the Pakistani Taliban. However, the ever-evolving geopolitical landscape in the region has significantly amplified the scope and importance of the TTP, also known as the Pakistani Taliban, and its associated threats. Now, the collaboration between Baloch separatists and TTP militants poses a potential security risk not only to Islamabad but also to Tehran.

The visit of the Pakistani army chief aligns with Tehran’s expression of disagreement regarding the proposed relocation of battle-hardened TTP fighters from the Pakistan-Afghanistan border to the northern provinces of Afghanistan. Iran has conveyed its concerns to the leadership of the Taliban, with whom they also face challenges related to refugees and water issues.

Mansur Khan Mahsud, head of the Islamabad-based FATA Research Centre (FRC) think tank, tells The Cradle that: “A definitive link between Baloch separatists and the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has been established since 2015-16, and this affiliation has progressively intensified over time.”

According to Mahsud, the depth of the TTP’s involvement with the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) became evident when they began providing training to BLA members in convoy maneuverings, ambush strategies, and picket assaults.

“The TTP also provides knowledge and training in the manufacturing and use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), to the extent that they actively collaborated with the Majeed Group suicide bombers and became a potential security threat to Islamabad and Tehran.” 

The situation, he argues, became complicated when the Afghan Taliban declined to adhere to the Doha Agreement and persisted in granting sanctuary to extremist factions within their jurisdiction:

“To mislead their neighbors, the TTP, in cooperation with the Afghan Taliban, has assumed a fictitious identity known as Tehrik-e-Jihad-e-Pakistan (TJP). This deceptive tactic is employed to conceal their operations originating from Afghanistan and to create the perception that the TJP, rather than the TTP, is responsible for engaging in militant activities from the Afghan vicinity.”

Paving the path to partnership 

Two strategic developments on the geopolitical landscape have paved the way for a meaningful and strategic partnership between Iran and Pakistan and removed major hurdles in the resumption of close, friendly relations between the two neighbors.

One of the primary obstacles encountered by Pakistan in its relations with Iran pertains to the exertion of influence by its ally, the US. Washington has consistently opposed any collaboration between Iran and Pakistan and actively worked to undermine joint endeavors between the two countries.

However, in the wake of the conflict in Ukraine last year, the US underwent a shift in perspective. Recognizing the imminent risk of a major energy crisis affecting both developed and developing nations, the US responded by re-establishing diplomatic relations with countries it had previously shunned.

Another challenge Islamabad encountered in its relations with Tehran was the Saudi-Iran geopolitical rivalry. Engaging in any enterprise involving Iran had the potential to disrupt Pakistan’s amicable relationship with Riyadh.

Despite Pakistan’s overtly neutral stance in the ongoing rivalry between the two West Asian powers, it is evident that Islamabad has indirectly aligned itself with Riyadh, as demonstrated by the provision of training, support, and collaboration with the Saudi armed forces. Consequently, Pakistan’s affiliation with Saudi Arabia restricted its ability to engage in substantive negotiations with Iran.

However, the pressure on Pakistan was alleviated following the historic China-brokered peace deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran on 10 March this year.

Positive signs on the diplomatic front

Earlier this year, several developments paved the way for closer interaction between Iran and Pakistan, setting the stage for the subsequent visit of General Munir to Tehran.

In January, a telephonic conversation took place between the military leaders of both countries, during which they established a mutual understanding to strengthen their military cooperation, particularly concerning reinforcing their shared border that extends over a radius of 565 miles.

Major General Bagheri, the Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, underscored the significance of augmenting security and defense collaboration between the two Islamic Republics. The objective of this collaboration was to enhance border security, counteract terrorist entities, stimulate economic endeavors in border areas, and cultivate a sentiment of amity and camaraderie across the mutual border.

Prior to this, in December of the previous year, Iran’s ambassador to Islamabad, Syed Muhammad Ali Husseini, held a meeting with the Pakistan army chief at General Headquarters Rawalpindi. Colonel Mustafa Ghanbarpour, the Iranian military attaché in Pakistan was also present in the meeting.

According to a report by IRNA, it was stated that during the meeting, the newly appointed army chief of Pakistan “expressed his apprehension regarding international sanctions while simultaneously expressing support for Iran’s nuclear program.”

It was also reported that Munir emphasized the immense potential for developing bilateral relations, particularly in the economic domain, and stressed the need to capitalize on these opportunities.

As relations between the two countries improved in May, Iranian President Raisi and Pakistani prime minister Shehbaz Sharif inaugurated the first border market in the isolated village of Pashin in the Baluchistan province of southwestern Pakistan. It is the first of six markets to be built along the Pakistan-Iran frontier under a 2012 agreement between the two countries.

In June, Rear Admiral Shahram Irani, the Iranian Naval Chief, proposed the creation of an Indian Ocean Naval Alliance consisting of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, India, and Pakistan. The main goal of this maritime alliance was to preserve global marine security.

The proposal has the potential to become a substantial regional security initiative, with Beijing expected to play a significant role. Many observers see countries like China, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Russia as natural allies, given their overlapping interests in an increasingly multipolar world.

Trilateral efforts against terrorism

General Asim Munir’s Tehran trip has added tension to the already strained relations between Kabul and Islamabad, particularly concerning the issue of TTP militants finding shelter in Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s military and civilian leadership have made it clear that they expect action from Kabul against the TTP militants operating from Afghan soil. In response, Pakistan threatened to take unilateral action to destroy the militants’ hideouts in Afghanistan if necessary. Kabul, on the other hand, emphasized that the Doha agreement was signed with the US, not Pakistan, indicating a growing verbal exchange between the two neighbors.

Jan Achakzai, a geopolitical analyst and one-time adviser to the Balochistan government, tells The Cradle that the level of regional cooperation between Pakistan, Iran, and China has increased. As exemplified by their recent conference in Beijing, officials from these states increasingly expect China to take the initiative in resolving a variety of pressing regional issues.

“The Helmand water dispute between the Taliban and Iran and the TTP crisis between Pakistan and Afghanistan are two examples that are to be tackled through this forum. The war of words between Pakistani and Afghan officials is merely window dressing, as TTP extremists are already being shifted to the Hazara region, which borders Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan. However, Iran has reservations about this movement.”

Achakzai adds that Pakistan and Iran have been collaborating closely to address the critical issue of terrorism in the Balochistan border region. A Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) commander, he points out, was reportedly eliminated in Iran following the first trilateral dialogue between Pakistan, China, and Iran on counterterrorism.

“If true, this may indicate that those who jeopardize the security pact between China, Pakistan, and Iran will soon face severe repercussions.”

This scenario is set to become even more serious with Iran’s recent inclusion as a fully-fledged member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), alongside existing members China and Pakistan. This development is likely to strengthen defense ties among the trio, leading to more joint efforts in enhancing their collective security.

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