Iran was the first country to recognize Pakistan as a sovereign state with the Shah of Iran being the first Head of State to visit Pakistan. The relationship between Iran and Pakistan however, changed with the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979.
Post Iran-Revolution saw the emergence of a strong Shia regime based on religion that practically remodeled Iran as an Islamic theocratic republic. ‘Designated as a State Sponsor of Terrorism in 1984. Despite its pledge to support the stabilization of Iraq, Iran continued to provide lethal support, including weapons, training, funding, and guidance, to Iraqi Shia militant groups targeting U.S. and Iraqi forces, as well as civilians.’ (US Department of State Country Report on Terrorism 2011: July 31, 2012)
Before the revolution, relationships between the two dynasties in Iran and Saudi Arab were on an even keel with both countries cooperating on many levels. However, post revolution Iran relationship turned for the worst. Ties between Riyadh and Tehran had a profound impact on the relationship between Islamabad and Tehran owing to Islamabad’s closeness with Riyadh.
Emergence of Saudi Arab’s support of Wahabiism and efforts at making space in Pakistan and Afghanistan have led to creation of two distinct camps within Islam over the world-both vying for greater leverage. Both Iran and Saudi Arab have supported their groups within Pakistan particularly post 1999.
Increasing costs of petroleum, a direct result of 1973 embargo, led to Arabs refusing to sell to US as a protest against American support towards the Isreal Army. ‘The Saudi-based Muslim World League opened offices in every region inhabited by Muslims, and the Saudi ministry of religion printed and distributed Wahhabi translations of the Quran, Wahhabi doctrinal texts and the writings of modern thinkers whom the Saudis found congenial, such as Sayyids Abul-A’la Maududi and Qutb, to Muslim communities throughout the Middle East, Africa, Indonesia, the United States and Europe. In all these places, they funded the building of Saudi-style mosques with Wahhabi preachers and established madrasas that provided free education for the poor, with, of course, a Wahhabi curriculum.’ (New Stateman)
Relationship between Tehran and Islamabad have been rocky- owing to these developments, also the closeness between Nawaz Sharif’s family with Saudi Arabia- is viewed by Iran with suspicion. This entire scenario has created a troubled triangle between the three countries. Sharif had emphasized upon maintaining good relationships with Iran among other nations as part of the foreign policy.
Realistically speaking, with a falling graph of Saudi-Iran relationship, Pakistan’s closeness to Saudi-Arab, a state of turmoil in Afghanistan, Iran’s historical closeness with India, and efforts to have her stakes in Afghanistan if Taliban take a seat, “Mullah Mansour’s taxi was obliterated from the sky as he returned to Pakistan from Iran. News reports said he went there for medical treatment, but one expert told The Times that Iran has been quietly helping the Taliban for several years, as a hedge in case the militants regain power in Kabul,” (New York Times Editorial May 25, 2016) it has not been a honeymoon between the two neighbors.
Pakistan and Iran have supported different camps post-cold war. The Gulf States along with Pakistan actively supported US and her allies trying to effectively curtail Soviet influence in Central Asia, especially Afghanistan. Selig Harrison, from the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars states, “The CIA made a historic mistake in encouraging Islamic groups from all over the world to come to Afghanistan.” The US provided $3 billion for building up these Islamic groups, and it accepted Pakistan’s demand that they should decide how this money should be spent.” Iran on the other hand has a history of good relationship with Russia. A country India too is close to.
The biggest challenge to Pakistan is to balance between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Refusal to have boots on ground in Yemen as per Saudi request was a commendable effort in effort to maintain n equilibrium.
However, in 2013, Pakistan joined the international sanctions against Iran under the aegis of its Premier Nawaz Sharif, in direct conflict with his stated foreign policy. In 2015, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif twice visited Pakistan. The purpose was to set off agreed projects as well as get a head start on other issues of mutual interests ie security, economic and cultural relations between the two countries.
Pakistan through its offensives via Zarb-e-Azab is focused on dealing with the security position within its borders to be able to help in the take off for CPEC. This project can offer huge transit benefits not only to China but also to Afghanistan, Iran and hopefully India once completed.
With Pakistan being close to US, Saudi Arab and China, her relationship with Russia, Iran and India were on low ebb. This is changing slowly but gradually over time. Relations with Russia are definitely better. This shows a maturity on part of Pakistan’s approach towards a radically different relationship with Russia a few decades ago.
With Iran, Pakistan signed nine bilateral cooperation agreements in May 2014 when Nawaz Sharif visited Tehran. These included provisions for countering terrorism and enhancing border security.
Iran must be disturbed by Islamabad’s closeness to Riyadh. By the same coin, Islamabad must be perturbed by Tehran’s closeness to Delhi. “Because Pakistan thinks that India is using Afghan soil to support the Baluch nationalist insurgency in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province and anti-Pakistan Taliban militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas, Iranian cooperation with India in Afghanistan could serve as a major irritant in Pakistani-Iranian ties.” (An Analysis of emerging Pak-Iran Ties: Norwegian PeaceBuilding Resource Center)
Both Iran and Pakistan need to understand that for a peaceful region, their cooperation and commitment to attain the goal is important. Both need to address the concerns felt by both in all sincerity.
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