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Iran-Pakistan at the crossroads?

  • Published at 04:05 pm July 16th, 2017
Iran-Pakistan at the crossroads?

Historically, Iran and Pakistan enjoyed friendly relations. Iran was quick to reach out to the newly created Pakistan in 1947, and in its early decades, senior Pakistani leadership – including founding father Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah – mostly came from the Shia sect of Islam. So although Iran was then neither sectarian nor at the vanguard of Shia Islam, the two countries remained close in many respects.

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, was the first head of a foreign country to visit Pakistan. Officially adopted in 1954, Pakistan’s national anthem is almost entirely written not in Urdu but in the Persian language.

Much changed with the Iranian revolution in 1979. The secular, pro-West Shah was ousted, and the Ayatollah Khomeini became the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In Pakistan, meanwhile, General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq (1977-88), a staunch follower of the Sunni sect of Islam, was dictator. Consequently, a divide between the countries emerged, particularly as Iran sought to spread its revolution to Pakistan, which although a Sunni majority country is still home to a large Shia population.

In those years, Pakistan began to drift away from Iran to the Sunni Arab countries of the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, which by now were major oil exporters. Meanwhile, India was becoming an increasingly contentious factor in Iran-Pakistan ties.

Today, while the two countries try not to antagonise one another, they no longer enjoy the same level of cooperation they did in the past. Indeed, as far as Balochistan is concerned, it seems that cooperation is being replaced with competition.

Pakistan’s regional posture is India-centric, while Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also enunciated on several occasions a policy of encircling and isolating Pakistan regionally and internationally. Along those lines, India has substantially increased its influence in Afghanistan, and it has recently, too, started stepping up its engagement with Iran. Meanwhile, Pakistan, instead of countering Indian engagement in Iran, is directing its ire at Iran itself. This has further alienated Tehran, which has its own interests to pursue.

In 2013, when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif came to power, the attention to Iran fell away. Instead, Sharif’s focus has been very much on Saudi Arabia. This is not surprising. When Sharif was previously ousted from power by former military dictator General Pervez Musharraf, he was forced into exile in Saudi Arabia for a number of years, where he established strong business and family links.

In May this year, Hassan Rouhani was elected for four more years as president of Iran. Fortunately, though he himself is not as conservative as the other presidential candidates, Rouhani does have the support of ethnic Sunni groups in Iran, who see him as a better choice than his more conservative competitors. By and large, Iran’s people want change, hence their support for the more moderate candidate.

A dramatic turn

In 2016, Iran-Pakistan ties took a dramatic turn with the arrest of Indian agent Kulbhushan Jadhav in Balochistan. According to officials in Pakistan, Jadhav was arrested as he attempted to cross into the country’s Balochistan province from Iran.

After Jadhav’s arrest, and during Iranian president Hassan Rouhani’s visit to Pakistan, the former director general of Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), Lt Gen Asim Bajwa shared the text of General Raheel Sharif’s meeting with the Iranian president.

During the meeting with the Iranian president, Raheel reportedly asked Rouhani to tell them RAW that “they should stop these activities and allow Pakistan to achieve stability,” according to a tweet by Bajwa.

But Iran’s president rejected any claim that the question of the Indian spy agency’s involvement in Pakistan was discussed during his visit to Pakistan.

Whichever was the case, one thing is clear: Pakistan is unhappy about Iran’s growing ties with India.

Meanwhile, Raheel, Pakistan’s former Chief Of Army Staff, has been appointed commander-in-chief of the Islamic Military Alliance (IMA), a counter-terrorism alliance formed by 39 Muslim countries with its headquarters in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The IMA has been dubbed the Muslim world’s Nato, but it pointedly does not include Iran and other Muslim countries with Shia leaderships, like Iraq.

Gwadar vs Chabahar

Officially, Iran has made clear on several occasions that its Chabahar port is not meant to be a rival to Gwadar port, which lies just 72km away in the Pakistani province of Balochistan. Instead, the two neighboring facilities have been touted as sister ports that could remake the region. Indeed, Iranian authorities have reportedly shown extraordinary interest in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), stating that Iran wants to be part of it.

Pakistan finds growing Indian interests in its neighboring countries intolerable, viewing them as an Indian plot to encircle and isolate Pakistan regionally. Hence, Pakistan views Indian involvement in Chabahar as a threat.

Following the lifting of sanctions on Iran that followed a deal struck between the big powers and Tehran to curb its nuclear program in 2015, India has reportedly committed $500 million to speed the development of Chabahar port.

However, new US President Donald Trump has been scathing about Iran, and has denounced its nuclear program.

India, which has developed close ties with Washington, is also fearful of new sanctions on Iran. For this reason, India has reportedly slowed development work in Chabahar.

Border politics

Mirjaveh is a town in Iran’s southeastern province that sits on the border with Pakistan. Historically, Mirjaveh was part of Pakistan, but General Ayub Khan handed it over to Iran during his dictatorship.

In recent times, the Jaish-ul-Adl, or the Army of Justice, has claimed responsibility via Twitter for an attack on 10 Iranian border guards in Mirjaveh. Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Bahram Qasemi summoned Pakistan’s Ambassador to Iran Asif Ali Khan Durrani to lodge a protest over the killings.

After the incident, a local source claimed that Iranian border guards ventured several kilometers into Pakistan territory, violating its sovereignty. Iran has built a 10-feet high thick concrete wall reinforced with steel rods along its own shared border with Pakistan’s Balochistan province. Iranian authorities built the fence to prevent illegal border crossings, drug trafficking, terror attacks, and unlawful transportation into Iran.

Sweeping changes

According to senior analyst and author Anwar Sajidi, the growing Saudi-Iran rivalry has seen major changes sweeping through the region. Meanwhile, the conflict in Syria is widening the division between the two sects of Islam, so much so that Sunni and Shia groups from Pakistan are taking part in the fighting in Syria. The Baloch Sunni militancy on the border area can be seen and understood within this context, he said.

Local security analysts argue that the Baloch Sunni militancy on the border areas in not a new phenomenon. Instead, it has grown over the years following the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979.

According to Sajidi, Sunni Balochs’ interest in Shia Iran dwindled following the revolution in Iran. Gradually, this evolved into the Sunni Baloch militancy in Iran, spilling over into Pakistan, too.

The phenomenon of Sunni militancy, according to an analyst who did not wish to be named, was first used in Mand town of Kech district, in the 1990s. He recalls, “Maula Bux Darakhshan, alias Mauluk, was an Iranian Baloch married to a girl in Turbat, where he lived. He founded his group called the Sipah-e-Rasoolallah. Under Mauluk’s command, Abdul Malik Reki was radicalized as a teenager. Later, in 2003, he formed his own group called Jundullah (soldiers of God).”

Jundullah was said to be responsible for the killing of Iranian security forces. However, according to some media reports, the group has expanded its target to include state installations in Iran.

From Waziristan to Gwadar, Salafism is being promoted; for example, there are Saudi-funded madrassahs. On the other hand, Iran is also trying to exert its influence in its own backyard. As a result, the situation has become more complex in the border region.

At the time of the Shah, Iran and Pakistan enjoyed amicable relations, with cooperation across multiple issues. With so many points of contention emerging in recent years, it is a markedly more tense relationship today.

[This is an excerpt of a The Diplomat article]

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