Iran and Pakistan enjoyed friendly relations. The two countries remained closed in many respects for years. In the present circumstances the two countries try not to annoy one another, they no longer enjoy the same level of cooperation they did in the past. It seems that cooperation is being replaced with good competition. Prime Minister Narendra Modi on several occasions has been isolating Pakistan regionally and internationally. India has substantially increased its influence in Afghanistan, and now it has recently penetrated its influence in Iran. As there seems to be no alternative for Pakistan but it is in its own interest to engage Iran in trade and other fields. In May this year, Hassan Rouhani was elected for four more years as president of Iran. He himself is not as conservative as the other presidential candidates. During his previous term, Rouhani showed considerable interest in trade with Pakistan, particularly with its largest province Balochistan.
Pakistan considers Iran a potential partner which can help overcome its dire energy needs. Iran has made clear on several occasions that its Chabahar port is not meant to be a rival to Gwadar port, which lies just 72 kilometers away in the Pakistani province of Balochistan. The two neighboring facilities have been considered ports that could remake the region. These two ports are rivals and are being developed as part of a broader regional competition for influence,” said Alex Vatanka, author of Iran and Pakistan. Due to heating ties with India, Pakistan has openly denied its neighbor any routes to further its interests in the region, particularly with Afghanistan and Central Asian Countries. Pakistan finds growing Indian interests in its neighboring countries intolerable, viewing them as an Indian plot to encircle and isolate Pakistan regionally. According to South Asia analyst Michael Kugelman, “Iran may have concerns about Gwadar from a geopolitical standpoint, given that Gwadar and the broader pattern of Chinese investment in Pakistan is a competitor to the India-led transport infrastructure project that centers on the port of Chabahar in Iran. Based on scale and amount of investment, the Chinese investments in Pakistan are more formidable than India’s in Iran.
Kugelman ‘says, “At the same time, Gwadar could have benefits for Iran. China has suggested its broader CPEC project in Pakistan could include financing the Pakistani side of a new gas pipeline from Iran. Also, China’s massive investments in Pakistan could merely be the precursor to broader Chinese regional infrastructure investments, including in Iran. 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 U.S. President Donald Trump has been maligning about Iran, and has denounced its nuclear program. According to a report by Reuters, “Swiss engineering group Liebherr and Finland’s Konecranes (KCRA.HE) and Cargotec (CGCBV.HE) have told India Ports Global Pvt Ltd, which is developing the deep water port; they were unable to take part in the bids as their banks were not ready to facilitate transactions involving Iran due to the uncertainty over U.S. policy. 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.
The Pakistan-Iran border region used to be peaceful. Now it is witnessing clashes. There is one reason for this. One is the flow of drug trafficking. At the time of the Shah, Iran and Pakistan enjoyed amicable relations, with cooperation across multiple issues. It is somewhat different relation today.
It is time to remove the hurdles and rebuild the relationship. In a wide-ranging interview with this paper over the weekend, the Iranian ambassador to Pakistan indicated as much as he talked of both the obstacles in the relationship and the scope for improvement. A turbulent border, infested with criminal gangs and small-time insurgent groups, and alleged cross-border links of individuals such as Indian spy Kulbhushan Jadhav and the late Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mansour are among these obstacles. Besides, there is the matter of unfinished projects, the most obvious example being the joint gas pipeline initiative. International sanctions on Iran have been used as an excuse for Pakistan’s foot-dragging on work on its territory, although some in policy circles have felt that the Gas Purchase Agreement was signed prior to the sanctions, and thus lay outside their ambit.
It cannot even be argued that resources to finance construction on Pakistan’s side are not available domestically. As the ambassador pointed out, engagement on other fronts is vital. Trade in commodities and cooperation in sectors like aviation, ports and shipping, and science and technology can help boost ties; and, unlike in the case of Afghanistan and India, where long-standing grievances have been a stumbling block in relations with Pakistan, there is no valid reason why Iran should seek to destabilize Pakistan. Working together to remove impediments in the way of enhancing cooperation should be a priority. In his recent visit to Tehran, army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa assured President Rouhani that Pakistan desired an enhancement in bilateral ties. This deserves to be followed up energetically. Iran has repeatedly called for increasing cooperation between the two ports of Gwadar and Chabahar, as well as participating in CPEC. Pakistan and Iran have much to gain through the expansion of ties and an earnest effort in that direction is possible, provided the will is there.