Prime Minister Imran Khan meets Supreme Leader of Iran Seyyed Ali Khamenei in Tehran. PHOTO: EXPRESSThe writer is a former ambassador
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Iran from April 21 to 22 reinforced the durability of Pakistan-Iran relations despite the recent terrorist attacks in the Iranian Baluchestan and Ormara of the Pakistani Balochistan. The Iranian government went out of its way to accord a rousing welcome to PM Khan which was manifested through unfurling of Pakistani flags and welcoming banners on major streets of Tehran.
That the visit took place was itself a big event in view of the Ormara terrorist incident in which 14 security personnel were killed by terrorists ostensibly coming from the Iranian Baluchestan. The PM’s visit also reinforces the argument that a strong regional policy — hinged on stable relationship with neighbours — is the best guarantee for peace and security in the region. It also belied the impression that Pakistan was following the Saudi camp in the region. Significantly, the post-Pulwama developments have established Pakistan’s credentials as a formidable power which not only can ensure its defence but can also play a positive role for regional peace which includes mediation between Iran and Saudi Arabia provided the two parties desire so. This augurs well for Pakistan for a stable partnership with Iran and the Saudi-led GCC countries.
The visit was meant to assuage certain misunderstandings that the Iranian leadership might be entertaining due to recent developments involving Pakistan and the Gulf countries. On security issues, the two sides agreed to establish a Rapid Response Force to monitor and interdict terrorists and organised crimes; and, exchange intelligence in real time. Concurrently, while the Iranian president categorically said that no third country could harm the Pakistan-Iran relations, our PM assured that Pakistan would not allow anyone to use its soil against another country. PM Khan’s message was not an assurance to Iran alone but to the entire neighbourhood, including India. He also made it clear that Pakistan would not succumb to pressure from any corners as was earlier speculated after the visits of the Saudi and Emirati dignitaries a few months ago.
Afghanistan was another major issue that has had direct impact on the security and socio-economic conditions of both the countries. Still 1.7 million and 1.4 million Afghan refugees live in Pakistan and Iran, respectively, whose repatriation to Afghanistan as a result of the ongoing peace talks has yet to be sorted out. Overall, there has been convergence on both sides for a smooth withdrawal of American troops and establishment of a durable dispensation in Afghanistan which can provide stability to the country and also take into account the wishes of its people. Since Iran has been preoccupied in Iraq and Syria during the past one decade, Afghanistan has been relegated to the secondary position in the Iranian calculus although Iranian officials remain vigilant over the unfolding situation in Afghanistan.
Related to this important development is the evolving consensus amongst the neighbours of Afghanistan that an orderly US withdrawal is needed and that all neighbours of Afghanistan should ensure that Afghanistan does not become a pawn in the regional rivalry. In a way Afghanistan’s traditional “neutral or buffer status” which kept peace during the Great Game between the British and Russian empires would be repeated although with a difference that this time neighbours of Afghanistan would not play favourite with Afghan factions.
The joint statement from Pakistan and Iran touched upon issues concerning Palestine and the American declaration of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO) and expressed concern over “unilateral application of measures by any country that are inconsistent with the provision of international law and the principles of UN Charter”. It also called for resolution of the Kashmir dispute in accordance with the UN Security Council resolutions.
On trade and economic cooperation, the two countries agreed to continue discussions on enhancing bilateral trade, including opening of two additional border posts and markets. President Rouhani also offered to enhance the current export of electricity to Pakistan by ten times in order to address Pakistan’s growing energy demands. Similarly, he reiterated his offer of selling oil and gas to Pakistan. However, he did not tell the audience as to what Iran can import from Pakistan to enhance the existing trade volume from $1.3 billion to $5 billion which has been agreed to by the two sides in the past five years. A reality check on the bilateral trade during the past two decades shows that the balance of trade has always been in Iran’s favour. Hence, it is Iran which has to be forthcoming in enhancing the trade volume by importing more from Pakistan. Certainly, banking channels are a problem but currency swap arrangements with Iran, as being practised by China, India, Russia and 20 other countries, can bypass the American sanctions.
In a strategic move which may have far-reaching impact, Prime Minister Khan offered Iran transit facilities from Pakistani territory to India and China. While transit for China is understandable, it is transit between Iran and India which is significant and could be an olive branch from Imran Khan to India. Certainly, this offer would not be restricted to Iran; and if things move in the right direction, including resumption of dialogue, India can be offered access to Afghanistan. This should serve as a major shift in Pakistan’s policy for the region which may turn out to be a game changer. However, the distance between the cup and the lip is still long. Indian election results and the subsequent dispensation would determine whether they are ready to play tango.
PM Khan’s visit may not have achieved much in terms of the bilateral trade for a variety of reasons, including the US sanctions on Iran, but it has set the tone for a stable regional policy which is more focused within the region than looking for allies far afield. It’s a promising beginning but with many pitfalls. The PM and his team will have to tread the path very carefully.