Prime Minister Imran Khan will travel to Iran between April 21 and April 22 for a much awaited trip which could, to a great extent, restore some semblance of balance in Pakistan’s policy for the Persian Gulf region.
Khan’s earlier overseas travels have been mostly to destinations from where he expected to get help for pulling the country’s economy back from the brink of an imminent disaster. His initial destinations were Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Turkey, Malaysia, and China. The visits at the best delayed the obvious and the country is finally close to accepting International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) embrace.
Iran was not in that league, and slid down on the list of priority foreign destinations for the new government. The expectations about an early visit to Tehran were created by Khan’s statements, given before coming into power, in which he looked more inclined towards developing relations with Iran that had suffered decades of mistrust.
It was further expected that the new prime minister would build on the visit of Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Bajwa in November 2017. Yet the challenges of running a government compelled Khan to turn to the Arab world for succour and tread the same path which successive Pakistani governments before him strode.
Moreover, the government was unlikely to have taken a path that could have antagonised the United States, even though ties between the erstwhile allies were not in the best shape.
Expecting the new prime minister to have acted to the contrary was, therefore, both unrealistic and dismissive of historical facts. That is why not only was Tehran not among Khan’s first foreign stopovers, but a planned trip was cancelled in January. The delay in a visit by the Pakistani premier could have, supposedly, only slowed the momentum in ties that was built by visits of General Bajwa, a return visit by Iranian forces commander General Baqeri and a meeting of the spy chiefs of the two countries in Islamabad under a quadrilateral format involving spymasters from Moscow and Beijing as well between November 2017 and July 2018. Nobody had expected a sharp downturn in the relations. The incidents of kidnapping of Iranian border guards in October 2018, a continuation of similar incidents in the past, and more lately a terrorist attack on a bus of Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan Province heavily impacted the relationship.
A statement by Saudi foreign minister Adel Al-Jubeir at a joint press conference with Pakistani counterpart Shah Mahmood Qureshi at the Foreign Office, during Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s visit, accusing Tehran of sponsoring terrorism added to the negativity. Further deterioration was luckily prevented by timely interventions by top leaders from both sides, who recognised the importance of the relationship. When Prime Minister Khan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke over phone last month on March 9, they renewed their commitment to jointly fighting terrorism, which is a major irritant in the relations.
Diplomats confirm that counter-terrorism cooperation will be high on the bilateral agenda when Khan and Rouhani meet in Tehran. It is said that the two leaders would look at ways for making the existing arrangements effective in addition to exploring the prospects for further strengthening the border security regime. However, it is important to note that Minister for Interior Shehryar Afridi is missing from Khan’s delegation for Tehran raising questions about the depth of the discussions on the matter.
Khan’s delegation includes Finance Minister Asad Umar, Advisor on Commerce Abdul Razzaq Dawood, Maritime Affairs Minister Ali Zaidi, Advisor on Overseas Pakistanis Zulfiqar Bokhari, and Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari. Diplomats say economic cooperation is on the agenda of the bilateral talks including the establishment of banking relations, setting up of border markets, and enhancing volume of bilateral trade. A few memoranda of understanding are also likely to be signed during the trip. However, there is scepticism about the prospects of economic and trading ties between the two neighbours growing anytime in future. Pakistan has always shown unquestioned compliance with US sanctions against Iran and no change in Pakistani approach is likely in future as well.
An agreement on the ferry service between Karachi and Chahbahar ports is likely to be finalised. The agreement on ferry service, which too has been long delayed, is a compulsion because of the security situation in Balochistan through which passes the land route used by Shia pilgrims travelling by road to Iran and Iraq.
In addition to the security concerns and economic disconnect, the other issue defining bilateral ties is the lack of progress on Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline. Iranians, who claim to have built the pipeline close to the border, are now losing hope about the project materialising, but they are keeping the issue on the table and pushing Islamabad to honour its commitments. According to one source, Iran can make a fresh offer to lure Pakistan into reviving the project. But, again sanctions are unlikely to allow that to happen. The prime minister is not taking his Minister for Petroleum and Natural Resources Ghulam Sarwar Khan on the trip, which also points to lack of Pakistan’s interest in engaging with Iran in the project. Another key figure missing from the delegation is Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi.
The trip is not going to yield anything similar to what was obtained from Saudi Arabia, UAE and China trips because Iran, although rich in natural resources, would not be in a position to offer financial assistance because of crippling American sanctions against it.
The writer is a senior researcher at Islamabad Policy Institute. She can be reached at email@example.com