By Mohsin Sherazi
More than the state visit of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to India in mid-February, his foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s air dash to Pakistan exactly a month later in mid-March was more newsy.
Rouhani- Modi talks in New Delhi did not offer a headline though diplomats of the two countries described the talks as “substantive and productive”. Zarif’s talks in Islamabad, on the other hand were front page news not only in Pakistan and Iran but also in India, China and beyond.
The visit took place just when Pakistan Army chief Gen Bajwa has begun to articulate his own doctrine as sure recipe for peace on Pak- Afghan border, inside Afghanistan, and in the Middle East.Also a week before his visit, Pakistan Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif had clarified that the troops sent to Saudi Arabia would not take part in the Yemen war.
Iran says that militancy emanating from Pakistani soil has been a major problem for Teheran , which, like the U.S., has been asking Pakistan to do more to check terrorist menace. And has been at pains to impress upon Pakistan the need to step up border security.
Zarif’s last visit to Islamabad took place in May 2017 in the aftermath of a cross-border attack by militants that killed a number of Iranian border guards. Just days before Zarif landed in Islamabad this time, the Bajwa Army provided the Iranians inputs which helped them to foil two suicide bids by militants based on the Pak soil. And Gen Bajwa has assured Zarif that Pak-Iran border would remain a border of peace and friendship. He was short on details as to how Jaish ul-Adl (also known as Jaish al-Adl) which is an off-shoot of CIA funded and trained Jundallah to bleed Iran would be reined in.
For both Iran and Pakistan, the Middle East has become an area of concern, though not for the same reasons. Iran sees a challenger in Saudi Arabia; for Pakistan, Saudi Arabia is not only a dear friend but also badly needed financier of first resort, and it cannot be annoyed at any cost. This is one reason why Pakistan has different yardsticks when it comes to ties with Iran and Saudi Arabia.
While courting Iran for its market and electricity imports, Pakistan has sent its former Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif to head the multi-national Islamic force, Riyadh has put in place to deal with security challenges in the region, particularly Yemen and Syria. Obviously, GHQ at Rawalpindi does not see any dichotomy in this twin track approach. On its part, Tehran is aware of Islamabad’s compulsions. As also the failure of Pakistan’s shuttle diplomacy under President Asif Zardari and Gen Pervez Kayani (Army Chief from November 2007 to November 2013) to defuse tensions between the Saudis and Iranians.
Expectedly, foreign minister Zarif utilised his three-day stay for pushing Pakistan to play its role in what a leading Karachi daily, Dawn, terms as evolving a new paradigm of “understanding and inclusion”. He warned of experiments of “exclusion” and “winning through power”. This is a direct reference to the unfolding events in Yemen and Syria, where Iran and Saudi Arabia both have a stake.Bajwa agreed on the neighbourhood paradigm but did not allow himself to be drawn into specifics to the disappointment of his Iranian interlocutor.
“Regional peace is dependent upon wider cooperation within West Asia. We all need to cooperate to root out transnational security/crimes threat,” Gen Bajwa was quoted as telling the Iranian Minister by Pakistan Army’s media wing, Inter Service Press Relations (ISPR).The official briefing was short on details, there by hinting that General Bajwa -speak, like his predecessors’, did not go beyond pious platitudes notwithstanding the assertions of some Pakistani commentators that by holding Iran’s hand, Pakistan military has sent a signal to Riyadh.
Yet,Javad Zarif made front page splash. For valid reasons. He asked Pakistan to participate in Chabahar seaport project and link it with Gwadar Port, which China has built on the Balochistan coast as its gateway to West Asia and as a part of its string of pearls(euphemism for network of ports built and managed by China for a strategic toe-hold in the Indian Ocean).
Was it an irresistible bait for India -centric Pakistan, a nuanced message to India, and the United States, or both? Whatever it may be Zarif has offered much food for thought to Pakistan even as he made the usual pitch for removal of tariff and non-tariff barriers, simplification of the Customs procedures, establishment of a banking channel, and early execution of Iran-Pakistan (IP) Gas Pipeline besides the signing of Free Trade Agreement (FTA).
As for the India factor, it is a reality for both Teheran and Islamabad. For different reasons! India stood by Iran during itstoughest phase of American led UN sanctions regime. There are hiccups nonetheless in the India-Iran relations particularly in respect of price and method of payment for the oil India had lifted, and in respect of developing an Iranian oil field an Indian government owned company has discovered. India started work on the Chabahar port (in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan Province that adjoins Pakistan’s Balochistan province) during the sanctions regime as its gateway to landlocked Afghanistan. If Iran today wants to rope in China and Pakistan into Chabahar, it is well within its rights.
From what Mohammad Javad Zarif had said in public and in private (as reported by Pak media), Iran does not appear to be making a pitch for multiple participants in the port venture. Instead the message is that Pakistan has very little to worry, and that Chabahar is purely a trade venture, and nothing more. Zarif appeared to elaborate this theme in his interaction with the Pakistan business community when he said:”Pakistan has emotional attachment to every citizen of Iran”. And added: “There exists huge potential of trade and investment on both the sides, which needs to be efficiently exploited”. Iran and Pakistan have “deep religious and cultural” ties which should be transformed into “strong economic cooperation to the benefit of the two nations”, he told his audience.
Even on the long pending Iran-Pak gas pipeline, he sounded persuasive surprisingly. He made no mention of Teheran’s plans to drag Pakistan to international arbitration over the stalled venture. The project is in the interest of both the countries, he said knowing fully that Pakistan has no interest on the project under Saudi and American pressures.
“We have done our part, and invested some $2 billion in the (IP) project,” he added as if emphasising that energy deficit Pakistan should allow its commercial interests to let the pipeline laid on its soil for receiving 1.5 million cubic meters (mcm) of natural gas per day.
There is undeniably a message to India in Zarif-speak. And it is that New Delhi cannot take Tehran for granted, and that it must act business like at Chabahar. India is not known for speedy completion of its overseas projects whether in Asia or Africa. In that sense New Delhi has been put on notice. .
Given its financial bankruptcy, Pakistan cannot look beyond its nose, and therefore its participation in Chabahar is ruled out. Also a road or rail link between Gwadar and Chabahar notwithstanding the Iranian overture.
Pakistan media has reacted positively to Iranian offer but with a caveat. “At this time, it may be wise to focus unilaterally on the CPEC project. Although, a congenial relationship between both countries is imperative for regional stability, only after CPEC is managed well should Pakistan participate in the Chabahar project as it could provide Pakistan a regional ‘leg-up’ in economic planning”, the Express Tribune, a leading daily published in tie-up with the New York Times, said in an editorialon 14 March, noting that this February, India took over the operational control of the port under a lease agreement.
China may toss up the Iranian offer but it is unlikely to rush in with bagful of Yuans. Gwadar meets its home bound trade interests for quite some time to come. It can afford to wait till Chabahar and the adjoining economic zone reach the take off stage to tap their potential. To the relief of India? Well, in a sense since China doesn’t need Chabahar to tap Central Asia nor as another pearl.
Immediate beneficiaries of Chabahar are Iran, Afghanistan and India – though not necessarily in that order. Iran gets the ability to handle standard cargo and thus reduce its dependence on UAE for handling large vessels. Afghanistan will hence forth be assured of Indian cargo without any hiccup. And for India it is a thumbs up since it is able to overcome Pakistan’s denial of its land route for Kabul bound goods traffic.
To conclude on a historical note, Chabahar port was the dream project of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran. He proposed it in 1973 to pump prime his plans to make Iran a significant regional player. Shah reign saw close friendship between Iran and Pakistan; at one time Iranian air force jets and helicopters targeted Baloch and Afghan insurgents on both sides of the Iran-Pakistan border while operating from Pak bases.
The advent of Taliban with Pakistan’s backing and targeting the minority Shias in Pakistan and Afghanistan created bad blood between “the best friends of the age” as a commentator noted then. In 1998, the Taliban killed Iranian diplomats in Northern Afghanistan. It was during this period that India came into Chabahar scene since Iran, India and Russia collaborated in backing the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan against the Taliban that was in the Kabul saddle. The 9/11 attacks on the Big Apple, and the fall of Kabul to the US-led NATOforces gave a fresh lease to Iran’s Chabahar plans. The rest is history as the saying goes.
(The author is geo-political analyst and the contents of the article are his views and not necessarily be agreed by the newspaper. Editor)