Visits by Pakistani and Iranian leaders to each other’s country have always been marked by plenty of platitudes about bilateral relations, their rich history and potential to grow, but there has been little substance in these exchanges.
Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa’s two-day trip to Tehran this week, in which he met with Iranian President Hasan Rouhani, Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces Major General Mohammad Baqeri, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Ali Shamkhani and the Chief Commander of Iran’s Army Major General Abdolrahim Mousavi, was no different. Both sides once again vowed to develop the relationship. But there was hardly a practical step mentioned in the numerous press reports in the Iranian media and tweets by Director General Inter-Services Public Relations Major General Asif Ghafoor on General Bajwa’s engagements in Tehran, which could suggest that the relationship was set to grow.
The three tweets from DG ISPR on the visit more or less spelt out the agenda of the trip, which included exchange of views on regional security, border security, and prospects for bilateral defence cooperation. The trip was, therefore, more of stocktaking of the current state of affairs in the relationship and continuing the communication on issues of concern to both sides, which largely revolve around security along the over 900 kms long border they share.
This visit by General Bajwa was the third high level visit from Pakistan to Iran this year in addition to a few official-level delegations that have visited the neighbour on our West. Prime Minister Imran Khan had earlier this year visited Tehran twice, once on a bilateral agenda and in the second instance for mediating between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The army chief had last visited Iran in November 2017.
Notwithstanding the resolve of the leaders in both countries, absence of historical baggage, and high frequency of bilateral visits, the two neighbours have been kept from expanding their relations because of the existing geo-political divide in which they find themselves in opposite camps. Significant progress, therefore, is not possible on the bilateral front as long as the two countries do not operate this relationship independent of their alignments in the regional and global politics. Till that time the two could at best only manage the ties by addressing the irritants that keep arising from time to time, what they are currently doing.
A review of the relations over the past couple of decades would only turn up a whole list of agreements and MoUs without anything concrete, whether it is the incomplete Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, or failures to set up banking channel, boost bilateral trade to $5 billion, start a ferry service linking Karachi with Gawadar, begin electricity import (by Pakistan), and develop rail connectivity. Iran’s request for linking up with CPEC too has been pending for couple of years.
Pakistan has been reluctant to move ahead with the implementation of the energy, trade, and connectivity projects on the pretext of US sanctions against Iran. Certain other pressures could also be preventing the implementation of those projects.
But, what the two countries have so far been able to achieve is cooperation in the 2010 arrest of Iranian terrorist Abdolmalek Rigi, who once headed Jundullah, recovery of kidnapped diplomat Attarzadeh in 2010, recovery of several of Iranian border guards, who were kidnapped on different occasions and erection of border fence to check unauthorized crossing by miscreants. Gen Bajwa too in the meetings assured his Iranian interlocutors of continuous monitoring of the borders.
Iranians, on their part, seemed happy with Pakistani effort for securing the borders. Iran’s Press TV quoted President Rouhani as having said that there have been positive developments towards enhancing security at the common borders. He further hoped that given the two countries’ firm resolve, they can easily confront the elements involved in subversive activities in border areas.
This is significant because it prevents misgivings between Islamabad and Tehran and that’s what I call managing the relationship. Other than this cooperation for border security, there is little to write home about bilateral defence cooperation. The border security cooperation, despite its immense importance, is not enough to put the ties on an upward trajectory – one that would be mutually beneficial.
President Rouhani, in his meeting with Gen Bajwa, rightly emphasised the need for enhancing trade and completing the gas project and undertaking other connectivity initiatives. This would provide a solid basis for taking the relationship forward. There cannot be any alternatives.
Pakistan has, moreover, lately engaged in a highly publicised effort to defuse tensions in the Persian Gulf. The initiative, much like similar attempts in the past, was welcomed by Tehran, but could not make much headway because of the deep rooted mistrust between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It is believed that the Saudis had encouraged PM Imran Khan to undertake mediation, but later stepped back because they were reportedly not too satisfied with the way the whole affair was being conducted publicly. Riyadh was probably wanted the initiative to be discreetly carried forward.
The writer is a senior researcher at Islamabad Policy Institute. She can be reached at email@example.com