Strategic mistrust key to Iran-Pak relations - Hindustan Times
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Strategic mistrust key to Iran-Pak relations

Jan 22, 2024 04:16 PM IST

Both countries have sought to maintain the veneer of a harmonious bilateral ties as befitting neighbouring Islamic nations with historical associations.

Does the missile and drone strike by Iran and the retaliatory strikes by Pakistan mean a new phase in Iran-Pakistan relations? The intensity of the strikes and the publicity accorded to them by both may suggest so. The respective country’s ambassadors have been withdrawn and governmental contacts frozen.

File picture of Pakistani and Indian national flags.(Reuters) PREMIUM
File picture of Pakistani and Indian national flags.(Reuters)

Yet while the extent of this spike in tension is certainly new, Pakistan-Iran border frictions are not and form a staple of their relationship. Nor is it a local issue alone, although the local dynamic centering around a divided Balochistan is important. The border and local issues are symptomatic of a deeper and basic mistrust.

This strategic mistrust stems from several causes. That Iran is predominantly Shia and Pakistan Sunni but with a significant Shia minority, is an obvious enough factor. But there are also deep geopolitical divides. Since the Iranian revolution in 1979, distrust of the US’s intentions and actions has been the prism through which Iran has viewed all its external relationships. The close relationship forged between the US and Pakistan over this period is fundamental to the wariness with which Iran views Pakistan. Notwithstanding the relative dip in Pak-US ties over the past four-five years, this strategic distrust runs deep and persists.

The growth of Islamic radicalism in Pakistan and the consequential increase in Shia-Sunni frictions in Pakistan have cemented fears about an Iranian hand in its domestic fissures. Afghanistan has also been a major factor in these differences, with Iran suspicious of Pakistan’s role in supporting the US presence in the two decades till 2021 and simultaneously in creating and consolidating the Taliban through different phases of contemporary Afghan history. In Iran’s perspective, Pakistan has played a double game in Afghanistan in this century.

Notwithstanding these differences, both countries have sought to maintain the veneer of a harmonious bilateral ties as befitting neighbouring Islamic nations with historical associations. In reality, the relationship is suboptimal in commercial and economic terms too. The potential that exists for a strong hydrocarbon relationship has remained unfulfilled. An Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline has been discussed for 15 years once it became clear that an Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline was a pipedream because of US opposition. The former has also not progressed — both for reasons of strategic distrust and on account of US sanctions.

For Iran, Pakistan’s Balochistan province is a base for Sunni terrorist outfits like the Jaish al Adl seeking to ferment disaffection amongst its Sunni population in Sistan Balochistan. They also see a visible US or even Israeli agenda which Pakistan has no difficulty in supporting. From Pakistan’s perspective, Baloch insurgent groups use Iran as a sanctuary to mount attacks with substantial Indian support which Iran sees no reason to curb. The Indian factor looms large in other ways too. The Pakistan-Chinese port project in Gwadar, Balochistan and the Indian role in Chabahar port in Iran deepens the sense of an enduring Pakistan-Iran strategic rivalry with the involvement of significant third countries in the two halves of the Makran coast.

The spike in tensions with Iran coincides with a polarising Pakistan general election just weeks away. Over the past year, Pakistan has passed through multiple crises. With continued Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan attacks, its relations with Afghanistan have plummeted over the past few months. Notwithstanding a brittle stability, relations with India remain poor. This downturn with Iran completes the circle of tense, friction-ridden ties that Pakistan has with each of its three neighbours it shares almost all of its history and culture with. Only China remains to provide minimum stability to Pakistan’s neighbourhood profile. The decision to launch Pakistan’s retaliatory strike would have been taken notwithstanding contrarian views within the system that this was the wrong time to have another disturbed neighbourhood relationship. Clearly, the need was to send a message that regardless of its domestic problems, Pakistan’s military would not stand by when the country’s sovereignty was infringed.

In Iran, similarly, this crisis coincides with a tense external and internal situation. Hamas, Hezbollah, the Gaza situation and the Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping all mean that Iran is at the centre of the West Asian crisis especially when seen from the US and western perspective. Earlier this January, a terrorist attack in Iran — described as the worst since the revolution of 1979 — killed over 80 people. There was, clearly a need felt by the government to send a message that enough was enough. The strike against Pakistan was preceded by similar action against targets in Syria and Iraq.

What next? Neither side has levied charges of existential differences. Statements by both governments underlined that their respective actions were aimed against terrorists and not the other country. Probably, with honour satisfied on both sides, a dialling down of tensions will gather traction and, on the surface, tensions will dissipate as rapidly as they accumulated.

And yet the situation is volatile also because of the wider West Asia factor. An overview from a distance may well suggest to some that a single theatre is emerging with the conflict in West Asia encroaching into South Asia. But India must view developments from its perspective. Notwithstanding its revisionist postures to its West, Iran’s behaviour to its East and with regard to India, Pakistan and Afghanistan has historically been status quoist. The latest Iran-Pakistan tensions are part of an existing sub-regional dynamic. We need not rush to aggregate it with the larger West Asia conflict.

These latest frictions certainly vindicate our critique of Pakistan that without a fundamental course correction, its vital ties will continue to languish. Whether the crisis will make Pakistan introspect about its neighbourhood and its national interest remains an open question.

T C A Raghavan is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan. The views expressed are personal

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