Pak-Iran relations: Cost to Islamabad

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By Naveed Ahmad
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif has arrived back in Teheran from Pakistan after what he claims was another “successful” visit. Prime Minister Imran Khan reportedly told him of the “inseparable bonds” between the two countries and committed to efforts “to cement these relations.” An official release quoted Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi attaching great value to “Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s strong and unswerving support for the just struggle of the people of Kashmir.”

Since Islamabad opposes unilateral sanctions as a matter of principle, this message shows unequivocal support for Iran in light of the White House’s reimposed sanctions. The statement came less than a week before US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s official visit. Now, Iran will push Pakistan to help it break the stranglehold of US sanctions by completing its part of the pipeline to funnel gas from the South Pars field in the Gulf.

It was back in 2013 that President Asif Ali Zardari flew to Chabahar to inaugurate the construction of the pipeline with his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Back in 2010, the Pakistan Peoples Party government signed the gas purchase deal contrary to expert advice.

In 1999, during Nawaz Sharif’s reign prior to Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s coup, a fair deal was on the table at a price of $1.60 for 1 million British thermal units (btu) above the floor and $2 per 1 million btu as the cap. Had Iran been pragmatic instead of insisting on $2.20 for 1 million btu, not only would the pipeline have been completed before the sanctions, but Iran could also have earned billions of dollars in over a decade-and-a-half.

As if the rip-off on the pricing front was not enough, Zardari agreed for Islamabad to pay a penalty of $1 million daily in the wake of failing to complete its side of the pipeline by the end of 2014. A 2013 study by the Sustainable Policy Development Institute termed the gas deal an “economic death sentence.”

Tehran, desperate to evade UN Security Council sanctions, had finished laying its part of the pipeline by July 2011. Last year, the Hassan Rouhani government threatened Pakistan with legal action if it did not comply with the pact. However, notwithstanding the UN sanctions, constructing the pipeline to purchase gas from Tehran far above the market price makes no sense. Faced with severe economic challenges and protests across the country, the Rouhani government will press Islamabad to revive the pipeline project and possibly renegotiate the terms and conditions.

During a trip in March, Zarif tried to convince Islamabad to stick to the disastrous agreement. Iran knows it would have little chance of success if it took the matter to the international court of arbitration. Regardless of its soft corner for the regime in Tehran, the cash-starved Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government cannot afford the political cost of proceeding with a terrible deal that its rival Sharif had refused to budge on. In his meeting with Imran on Wednesday, Pompeo will, in all likelihood, hint at the consequences of evading the US sanctions on Iran.

Besides keeping Islamabad energy dependent, Tehran has been desperately pressing Pakistan for defense cooperation. Rouhani, Zarif and Iranian Army Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Mohammed Bagheri have all met with the Pakistani Army Chief of Staff Qamar Javed Bajwa. Not only does there exist a deep desire for arms acquisition and joint weapons development programs, but also an exchange program for cadets and officers. But there has been little headway beyond cooperation on border security in the wake of the Zainabiyoun mercenaries’ movement and smuggling of illicit goods. Indian spy Kulbhushan Jadhav, aka Hussain Mubarak Patel, was arrested in Balochistan with a valid Iranian visa on his Indian passport. As much as Islamabad stands in solidarity against unilateral sanctions, it also tries to prevent them.

As for Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s support of Pakistan’s stance on Kashmir, the ground reality is stark. During his historic India visit, Rouhani not only avoided any reference to the peaceful resolution of the disputed Muslim-majority state, but also categorically supported New Delhi’s candidacy for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

Though Iran and India don’t talk publicly about the scope of a defense pact signed in 2003 during President Mohammed Khatami’s visit, a communique in February did refer to it. Press reports suggested that New Delhi and Tehran have had in-depth deliberations on fine tuning the security agreement. But, now that India is backpedaling most of its commitments under pressure from the White House, Iran has chosen to lure Pakistan.

Political statements aside, the US sanctions are more consequential than generally portrayed. Had there been no deterrent from Trump’s nuclear-related curbs, Tehran would have become a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, where its application has been pending since 2008. Although President Rouhani was twice invited as a special guest, Iran’s membership of the quasi-military, economic forum could not become reality while subject to UN sanctions.

A Reuters report from last week suggested that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has handed over ballistic missiles to proxy militias. This has further cemented the concerns of Pakistan’s establishment about Iran’s rogue behavior.

Before embracing Iran with big statements, the government should consider the cost, which could include the imposition of contiguous US sanctions, fallout in global forums, an expansion of homegrown pro-Iran extremists, and a worsening of relations with Arab neighbors, where millions of expatriates work and from where they send remittances worth more than $10 billion each year.

(Naveed Ahmad is an investigative journalist and academic based in the GCC with a career in writing on diplomacy, security and governance. Besides other honors, he won the Jefferson Fellowship in 2000 and UNAOC Cross-Cultural Reporting Award 2010. Twitter: @naveed360)