Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Iran-Pakistan relations in light of popular uprising in Bahrain

This article is simultaneously published in Foreign Policy Journal, American Chronicle and Online Opinion.

Pakistan’s interior minister Rehman Malik was recently on a visit to Tehran conveying a special message from the Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to President Ahmadinejad of Iran. The Pakistani minister also met with other Iranian officials including his Iranian counterpart Mostafa Mohammad Najjar and the Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi. Besides the reports of routine diplomatic niceties over the importance of the bilateral relations of the two countries, no details have been reported on the content of the presidential message delivered by the Pakistani minister.

Lack of substantive media reports notwithstanding, there are some indications as to what may have motivated the Pakistani president to dispatch a special envoy to his Iranian counterpart and what issues may have topped the agenda of the meetings between the Pakistani minister and the Iranian officials. Over the past several years, security and economic cooperation have been the staples of the agendas of meetings between Iranian and Pakistani officials at various levels. However these issues are normally discussed in periodic meetings between the officials of the two countries and within structured frameworks governing the relations of the two countries, unless unpredicted situations arise in the relations of the two countries which would require immediate attention by both parties.

What gave urgency to the current situation in the relations of Iran and Pakistan was the ongoing popular uprising in Bahrain and the seemingly divergent positions of both countries toward the political crisis in that country. More specifically, Iran’s declared solidarity with the uprising of the Shiite majority in Bahrain and its strong opposition to any kind of military assistance provided by foreign governments to the Bahraini regime with a view to suppressing the public struggle for democracy in that country has meant that Pakistan had some explaining to do to Iranian officials in order to salvage its growing economic ties with Iran.

What touched Iran’s nerves was Pakistan’s recent decision to authorize the recruitment of thousands of its retired security officers by the Bahraini regime in an attempt to quell the public uprising there. Following this announcement, Iranian foreign ministry officials summoned the Pakistani charges d’affaires in Tehran and conveyed Iran’s strong reservations over Pakistan’s move and warned his government of serious diplomatic consequences if Pakistan followed through with its decision. The recent trip by the Pakistani interior minister to Tehran to deliver a special message from the Pakistani president to his Iranian counterpart can be understood as an effort to patch up political differences between the two countries over Bahrain and to prevent further diplomatic fallout between them.

The statements of the Pakistani embassy officials in Tehran over the political developments in the region in prelude to Malik’s trip to Tehran also indicate that Islamabad has meant to give assurances to Tehran that it does not intend to take sides in the political conflict in Bahrain. According to the Iranian media , the Pakistani charges d’ affaires in Tehran recently stated that "Pakistan's policy is maintaining neutrality and refraining from interference” in the ongoing political developments in the region including the political conflict in Bahrain. In a recent joint meeting, the Pakistani interior minister and the Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi also expressed their common view that the ongoing popular uprisings in the region are not of sectarian nature.

The degree of Pakistani concerns about Iran’s possible retributions over its position on Bahrain has been to the extent that some Pakistani media interpreted the recent announcement by the Iranian defense minister Ahmad Vahidi that Iran plans to build concrete security fence along its border with Pakistan to prevent border crossing by terrorists and drug traffickers as a response to Pakistan’s decision to deploy security personnel to Bahrain. Although building a security fence along its common border with Pakistan would make Iran less reliant on the not-always-forthcoming Pakistani security cooperation, such a strategic and long-term plan may clearly not have been motivated by short-term developments in the region. Nonetheless, border security arrangements were a major issue on the agenda of the Pakistani interior minister’s meeting with his Iranian counterpart. In this line, the Iranian interior minister Mostafa Najjar has reportedly called on the Pakistani government to step up efforts in disrupting the safe haven of the Jundallah terrorist group across the Iranian border in Pakistan.

In the past, Pakistan has extended limited cooperation to Iran by arresting and extraditing some wanted Jundallah terrorist members in its territory but it has been only a matter of time before Jundallah terrorists have regrouped and renewed their terrorist attacks against civilians in southeastern ethnic Balouchi region of Iran which borders Pakistan’s Balouchistan province. Although Pakistan suffers from a by far worse security condition in its own tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, to the extent that it presents the impression of a failed state to observers in those regions, it is capable of providing wider cooperation to Iran in fighting cross-border terrorism by dismantling Jundallah’s terrorist network in its border areas or allowing Iran’s security forces to use its soil in border areas to pursue and eradicate Jundallah’s terrorist elements.

Pakistani officials may think that putting a decisive end to Jundallah’s terrorist activities in its border areas may not be in their best interests as it might dampen Iran’s incentives for cooperation with Pakistan in other issue areas, especially in the energy sector, once the threat of terrorism is gone for good. In other words, Pakistan may consider its cooperation over combating cross-border terrorism as a bargaining chip for gaining economic concessions from Iran and would thus prefer to keep the option open for a long time by extending a limited rather than full-fledged security cooperation to it . While this may work in Pakistan’s interests for a short while, its drawback is that it would erode Iran’s trust and jeopardize Pakistan’s long-term interests in its relations with Iran. Under such a situation, Iran may be forced to seek a permanent and long-term solution to the threat of cross-border terrorism and thus end its reliance on security cooperation with Pakistan. Iran’s recent decision to build a concrete security fence along its entire border with Pakistan can be interpreted as a response to Pakistan’s irresolute cooperation with Iran in dismantling Jundallah’s terrorist safe haven in its border areas.

The stakes for Pakistan are high in its relations with Iran given the ongoing investment projects between the two countries in the energy sector. The existing natural gas pipe line project which is expected to become operational in 2014, will supply the bulk of Pakistan’s domestic natural gas needs from Iran’s massive South Pars gas field. Forging a strategic relationship with a neighboring country which possesses the second largest natural gas reserves in the world and is expected by official accounts to supply ten percent of the world’s natural gas needs in a not so distant future, owing to enormous investments in its natural gas sector over the past couple of decades, would be on top of the foreign policy agenda of every astute state leader. Pakistani politicians seem to be looking to that horizon despite some contradictory signals emanating from Islamabad every now and then, as in the case of their recent dispatch of security personnel to Bahrain .


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