Iran-Pakistan Relations: A Different View

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Pir-Mohammad Mollazehi
Expert on Indian Subcontinent & Middle East Issues

A recent two-day visit by Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, the new prime minister of Pakistan and leader of Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PMLN) to the Islamic Republic of Iran earlier this month and his subsequent negotiations with various senior Iranian officials have drawn a lot of attention worldwide. Whether or not his visit could meet the expectations that had been already brought up by the Iranian press is quite a different issue. However, his trip to Iran can be considered very important from certain angles as it shows that these two important Muslim and neighboring countries enjoy high potentials for the development of political, trade, cultural, military and security cooperation. During his trip to Iran, two expectations that Iran has from Sharif’s government gained more prominence in the Iranian media:

1. Military and security cooperation along the common border; and

2. Making a final decision on the fate of Iran-Pakistan natural gas pipeline, which is also known as the Peace Pipeline.

As for the first topic, many issues should be discussed because many of those issues have not been understood correctly in Iran. As a result, certain expectations mentioned by the Iranian media in this regard are basically outside the power of Nawaz Sharif’s party-based government of Pakistan. This means that he is not actually able to make and implement decisions with regard to this issue on his own. The presence of Abdul Malik Baloch, the chief minister of Pakistan’s Balochistan Province, among the entourage of Nawaz Sharif during his trip to Tehran, was meant to convey a clear message to the Iranian side. In fact, the government of Nawaz Sharif intended to indirectly remind the Iranian counterpart that the main party to be dealt with in regard to what goes on in Balochistan Province is the local government, not the central government.

But is this all the truth? The realities on the ground prove otherwise. In reality, both the central government and the local government in Balochistan Province of Pakistan have limited power to influence the process of border developments along the common frontier between Iran and Pakistan. In practice, however, it is the Pakistani army which can act, or not act, firmly, and can control, or not control, the border. This reality should be taken in correctly and due attention should be also paid to limitations with which the provincial and central governments in Pakistan are currently faced. To put into force any decision or agreement which pertains to security along the borders will be conditional on the performance of the Pakistani army and secret services present in the country’s Balochistan Province. As a result, the degree of accountability of the local government with regard to border security is similar to the accountability of the central government and even this amount of accountability is dubious at best. However, there are special reasons why the Pakistani army and the country’s efficient border guards – who are present across Balochistan Province and are also known as the Frontier Corps (FC) – are not taking firm actions to control the border with Iran. Two most prominent of those reasons are:

1. Pakistan’s border with Iran is not a security priority for the Pakistani army, because the army’s foremost security concern is the country’s border with India; and

2. Ideological radical forces present in Balochistan Province are supported by the Pakistani army because the army uses them to keep ethnic forces at bay.

It is generally believed that both the above issues are well known to the Iranian side, but the importance of maintaining security along the Iranian border has been mostly underestimated. In reality, however, the Pakistani army and FC forces, which are stationed in Balochistan Province of Pakistan, are currently faced with unfulfilled demands of ethnic Baloch people in that province. As a result, lack of timely and proper response to demands of the Baloch people has fueled people’s tendency to engage in armed struggle against the central government with the final goal of getting separated from Pakistan. Now, the Pakistani army considers itself duty-bound to control this separatist current through military means in order to protect the country’s territorial integrity. On the other hand, however, the Pakistani army is employing radical Islamist and jihadist forces, especially in its ideological sense, in order to undermine ethnic elements in Balochistan Province and control the situation in that region while paying the lowest price in political and military terms. This policy is not very much different from the traditional jihadist policy of Pakistani army which has been so far applied to India, the main strategic rival of Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Therefore, we must not expect the Pakistani army to act differently. According to this policy, the ideological and radical elements are employed with ethnic motivations in order to protect the strategic interests of Pakistan and it doesn’t make a difference to the Pakistani army where to implement this policy. This is the main reality which has not been understood correctly in Iran as a result of which this problem has been treated in a simplistic way.

Therefore, if the issue of security along the Iranian border is looked upon from the viewpoint of Pakistani army generals, it would be clear that it is not as important to Pakistani army as the Iranian side expects. The main concern of Pakistani army is to know what radical and ideological force is acting where, but as long as that force is at the service of the general jihadist strategy of Pakistani army, the consequences of its actions for other countries is not a main concern for the armed forces of Pakistan. Another important reality is that the “nationality,” as an element to be reckoned with, is meaningless to the radical and ideological Islamic groups. The location of their fight is determined by environmental conditions as Islamist radicals enter the war for a bigger goal which transcends the limits of nations and nationalities. It is exactly for this reason that their potential for mobility and change of geographical location is high. Therefore, wherever conditions are deemed suitable, they start to act with no regard for the official borders of countries. Of course, radical Islamist groups usually choose a name in every country and every geographical region that they act, which is frequently chosen according to environmental conditions under which they act. However, it would be a total mistake to believe that ethnic motivations are the main thing which makes them tick.

The ethnic demands that are usually put forth by these mainly transnational and transregional groups, is just a tactic to facilitate their activities and pave the road for them to achieve their goals more easily. Within this framework, the security of regions located along the common border between Iran and Pakistan should be considered within the framework of a bigger strategy, which is actually of a jihadist quality and has the capacity to easily go beyond any internationally recognized border. This viewpoint is not basically different from the viewpoint that Pakistani army holds in this regard. Of course, the government of Pakistan, as an official power institution, cannot wish for insecurity along its border with Iran because insecurity would be basically not to Islamabad’s benefit, nor it would strengthen the position of Pakistani government in the rivalry-based domestic power balance between the political and military sections of Pakistan’s political system.

The issue regarding the construction of the Peace Pipeline is not much different from the issue of border security. Even with regard to this gas pipeline, the priority is not actually determined by the government of Nawaz Sharif. Therefore, his government cannot be expected to abide by all the obligations and the content of contracts that have been signed between previous presidents of the Islamic Republic and Pakistan. It is true that Pakistan is badly in need of suitable and economically viable fuel supply from the Islamic Republic of Iran and there is not the least speck of doubt about this reality. However, the country’s urgent need to get fuel should not be necessarily taken to mean that Pakistan has no other options available to it. A Pakistan which in some seasons can even tolerate up to 18 hours of power cut in its main cities without breaking a sweat will be also able to put up with many other problems and difficulties. Whether this approach to the country’s problems is correct or not, is quite a different issue. On the surface, the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is in charge of making a decision about implementing or not implementing the natural gas pipeline project, but in reality this is not the case. The foreign factor, especially pressure from the United States, which has a lot of leverage to pressure the government in Islamabad, should not be underestimated. The most commonly accepted assumption in this regard is that the hands of the Pakistani government are tied with regard to implementation of the Peace Pipeline and excuses offered by Islamabad such as the lack of necessary facilities to implement the project as well as limitations faced for funding the project, should not be taken seriously. Even if Iran accepted to fund the entire project, Pakistan would still be unable to go on with it under the present circumstances. It would be only able to continue with the project when all the existing conditions change and foreign pressure, as a determining factor, is reduced to a minimum, or at least to a level that would be tolerable for the government of Nawaz Sharif.

Despite the above facts and regardless of two major issues of border security and the Peace Pipeline, in reality, Iran and Pakistan enjoy enormous capacities for development of their political, economic and trade cooperation. The latest evidence to this fact was signing of nine memorandums of understanding during the recent trip of Nawaz Sharif to Tehran. Further cooperation between Iran and Pakistan will not only guarantee that common interests of two important and axial countries in the Islamic world will be met in the best possible way, but in a more general approach, it will be to the benefit of the entire Islamic world. All of this, however, is conditional on realism on the part of both countries and focusing on realistic expectations. This is especially true because it seems that the radical Islamic current, which has been so far supported by Pakistan in line with the jihadist strategy of Pakistani army, is now targeting the national security and foreign relations of Pakistan as well. If the new situation is combined with a suitable level of realism, it could be the beginning of a new process through which Pakistan would be able to reap the highest benefits, though other Islamic countries in the region would be also benefited by this process.

Last but not least, those who recently highlighted the possibility of mediation between Iran and Saudi Arabia by Nawaz Sharif have certainly ignored the great capacities that abound in Iran and, therefore, such moves should not be taken seriously. The Pakistani government does not have the key to the problem of border security in Balochistan region and a solution to this problem cannot be achieved through military means. Sustainable development as well as fighting poverty and underdevelopment in Balochistan regions of both Pakistan and Iran is the ultimate solution. Therefore, cooperation between the two countries should be directed toward this goal. Otherwise, security agreements are frequently costly and finally of little or no effect.

Key Words: Iran-Pakistan Relations, Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, Military and Security Cooperation, Peace Pipeline, Balochistan Province, Radical Islamic Groups, Saudi Arabia, Mollazehi

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*Photo Credit: JAM News