Regional Impact of Rouhani’s Pakistan Visit Outweighs its Effect on Bilateral Ties

Monday, April 4, 2016

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

Q: What is the significance of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s recent visit to Islamabad and his meetings there with high-ranking Pakistani officials?

A: Mr. Rouhani’s trip to Pakistan was his first visit to a regional country after implementation of Iran’s nuclear agreement with the P5+1 group of countries, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), started. Therefore, his Pakistan visit can be considered as meaningful. In other words, in view of political and security conditions on regional and international levels, it seems that Mr. Rouhani’s choice of Pakistan visit has been very well calculated, so that, its regional impacts would be much more resounding than the effect it may have on bilateral relations between the two countries. At the present time, conditions in the Middle East are such that conflicts are expanding and on the rise, while sectarian and religious conflicts are coming to surface more evident than other types of conflicts. Now, many citizens in the Middle East and across the world believe that the government of Iran is the leader of Shia countries in the region, while Saudi Arabia is leading a coalition of Sunni states. Pakistan is a country where, despite the existence of a Sunni majority, Shias are also a big population and due to this reason and also in view of the special position that Islamabad enjoys both in Tehran and Riyadh, Mr. Rouhani’s trip to this country proved that Iran has no interest in fanning the flames of sectarian and religious conflicts and intends to settle the existing disputes through political solutions.

Q: Can Rouhani’s trip to Islamabad in the post-JCPOA era break the deadlock in Iran’s trade relations with Pakistan?

A: In reality, when it comes to meeting their economic needs, both countries are more reliant on countries outside the region, including Europe, the United States, Japan and China. Of course, there are capacities in both countries, but to take advantage of those capacities, both countries need to recognize each other’s advantages properly, because at the present time, we are facing problems for recognizing our advantages. For example, Iran is of the opinion that Pakistan is under high pressure for supplying its needed energy and Pakistanis will have to accept any proposal by Iran in this regard. For this reason, the issue of the Peace Pipeline (which is supposed to take Iran’s natural gas to Pakistan) was frequently raised during this trip. However, our opinion (about Pakistan’s energy needs) is erroneous because Pakistan has many options to choose from and they are working with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkmenistan to solve this problem. Therefore, when it comes to this issue, we must also take into account those options, which have been proposed by Pakistan. Pakistan has good products such as fruits, rice and textile and instead of importing textile from South Korea and Japan, we can import it from Pakistan. Iran, in return, can export its petrochemical products to Pakistan. Current studies show that the two countries have the ability to boost the volume of bilateral trade and during Mr. Rouhani’s trip to Islamabad, the two sides decided to elevate the level of their economic relations to USD 5 billion. Establishing two more border trade zones was another issue on which the two countries decided to take action in order to further boost the volume of bilateral trade exchanges. I believe that if the two countries’ goals are chosen on the basis of realities on the ground, the level of their relations will be elevated. However, a necessary condition for achieving this goal is for both countries to think about long-term benefits of these relations and stop thinking in idealistic terms.

Q: Why despite the conclusion of a contract for the construction of the Peace Pipeline between Iran and Pakistan, which is more than a decade old, this contract has not entered the implementation phase?

A: Iran has fulfilled its share of obligations, but Pakistanis are yet to fulfill their share of contractual obligations. An effective reason, which prevented implementation of the Peace Pipeline’s contract in past years, was international sanctions imposed on Iran because in the presence of those sanctions, it was not possible for the Pakistani side to invest in the project and construct its share of the pipeline. The Pakistani side neither had the necessary resolve to fulfill its obligation, nor it wanted to face any problems with the United States. On the other hand, Arab countries in the region, especially Saudi Arabia, met Pakistan’s energy needs to some extent. Let’s not forget that a very large number of Pakistanis work as laborers in Saudi Arabia and other littoral countries of the Persian Gulf and Pakistan is earning about USD six billion a year in this way. Islamabad is also getting USD one billion per year in grant aid from the United States and this is why Pakistan’s officials do not want to lose their interests in this regard. However, lack of funds has been announced by Pakistan as the main excuse for shunning its obligations in this regard.

Q: How this problem can be possibly solved?

A: The best option for taking this measure is to transfer this project to a third country. It seems that China is an optimal option for both countries and the Chinese, for their part, are willing to take action on this project without having major concerns about the United States sanctions. By introducing China into this project, Indians will take it more seriously due to their rivalry with China and may even tone down their demands.

Q: Is lack of implementation of a security cooperation agreement between Iran and Pakistan also a result of Pakistan’s close relations with the United States and Saudi Arabia?

A: Part of its non-implementation is due to this reason. However, Iran and Pakistan have about 900 km of common border and both countries have a similar border in length with Afghanistan. Here, security of the region is affected by two issues. The first issue is ethnic problems revolving around the Baluch ethnic group and Baluch people living in Iran in addition to both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Baluchestan regions in all three countries are among their least developed regions and this issue has given rise to some feeling of discrimination among Baluch people. The second issue is religious extremism as a result of which, the dominant trend now is prevalence of this way of thinking in this region, which in turn, helps spread religious conflicts and ethnic rivalries among people there. When it comes to problems with this ethnic group, Pakistani officials are coordinated with their Iranian counterparts, but this coordination has never led to practical steps. I believe that even if the bilateral security agreement entered into force, it would not achieve its goals without due consideration for the demands of the Baluch people. The security can be only restored to the region when economic development, job creation and welfare reaches Baluchestan region; otherwise, with the continuation of poverty and discrimination, insecurity is the only thing that can be expected to prevail in this region. On the other hand, as long as ethnic and religious conflicts exist in the region, the security agreement would not be able to achieve much. Due to these reasons, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan must cooperate in this regard in order to prevent further ethnic and religious escalation in this region.

Q: Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are considered two strategic allies for each other. To what extent Riyadh may tolerate expansion of relations between Tehran and Islamabad?

A: We must know that Pakistan has interests and benefits in having relations with both Iran and Saudi Arabia and is not willing to lose those interests. Pakistani officials, therefore, seek to have balanced relations with Tehran and Riyadh. The current political structure in Pakistan is such that it does not allow for the government to totally tilt toward one side. I think that after resolution of the issue of Syria, Tehran and Riyadh would move toward reduction of tensions and Islamabad can play an important role in this regard. The ability of Pakistan to have an effect in this regard is certainly more than any other country.

Key WordsHassan Rouhani, Pakistan, Visit, Bilateral Ties, Regional Impact, Islamabad, Middle East, Post-JCPOA Era, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Turkmenistan, Peace Pipeline, Security Cooperation Agreement, Tehran, US, Mollazehi

Source: Etemad Newspaper
Translated By: Iran Review.Org

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*Photo Credit: B.K. Bangash/Associated Press

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