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April 28, 2019

Looking west

Opinion

April 28, 2019

There are two ways to assess Prime Minister Khan’s first state visit to Iran. The first is to view the trip as a desperate bid to repair a fast-fraying relationship.

Ties with Iran have been on thin ice following attacks in both countries by non-state militants, with renewed worries that Iran may be stoking Baloch nationalism. The frequency with which we exchange mortar and small arms fire across a 950 km border has increased in recent years. The trust deficit has widened since we have made clear our intention to woo Riyadh for investment and financial support that includes deferred payments for Saudi oil.

From this perspective, the visit is instrumental: both sides agreed to set up a joint rapid reaction force on the border to combat terrorism, and to not allow spoilers to derail the relationship. The ISI chief’s presence during the PM’s visit helped.

But there is a second way to assess the visit, this time with a longer view to the future. This includes asking ourselves: are we really committed to scaling up ties with Iran given our proclivity for Saudi largesse and the Trump administration’s ever-hardening line on Tehran? Does the strength of our relationship with Iran have purchase elsewhere in the region? Do Iran’s stakes in the Afghan endgame square with our own?

These are difficult questions, and it is unclear if the prime minister and his team had ready answers. The Pak-Iran relationship has never been a purely pragmatic one. In part because of force of circumstance, we have been unable to stop viewing Iran from zero-sum considerations; that is, keeping the Saudis from raising their hackles, and ensuring sufficient stability on our fourth border.

Interestingly, and despite a challenging array of internal and external security compulsions, Iran has done a better job of not allowing its outreach to be influenced by public opinion in any one capital. Javed Zarif was the first senior dignitary to travel to Pakistan after the PTI formed government last year. The Iranian leadership is a rare instance of a foreign regime that does not shy away from raising the Kashmir issue in public. And after tensions with India soared in February, Iran was one of only three countries in the region that offered to mediate at the height of the crisis.

It is true that, unlike Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Iran is not a source of billions of dollars of remittances for Pakistan. But it is also true that, until 2013, Iran was poised to offer an energy-starved Pakistan some much-needed succour: natural gas. Discussions on the transfer of Iranian gas via the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline were first taken up by the PPP government and followed through by then president Zardari, but halted by later administrations in light of American and Saudi pressure. Not unsurprisingly, Iran was better at defiance, taking measures to construct a significant portion of its side of the pipeline. In his meeting with Prime Minister Imran Khan this week, President Rouhani once again reiterated his regime’s offer to supply not just oil and gas but also electricity if Pakistan so desired.

Considering we still face an acute shortfall 4,000-7,000 megawatts in our energy needs, our failure to push harder for the IP gas pipeline is perplexing. Natural gas accounts for 50 percent of our total energy consumption, and our energy demands are forecasted to increase 250 percent over the next 20 years. It is imperative that any long-term foreign policy strategy for Pakistan factors in solutions to help us meet our current energy deficit. Energy corridors that capitalise on our proximity to the Gulf and Central Asia make fundamental policy sense.

Second, the conflict in Afghanistan: while unprecedented negotiations in Qatar between Khalilzad and the Taliban have created cautious optimism for a blueprint for reconciliation, the US has deliberately kept Iran and Moscow at an arm’s length during the negotiation process. But Daesh’s worrying persistence in eastern Afghanistan makes the Taliban, for Iran, the lesser of two nemeses and a potential ancillary lever in the endgame. While the Iranians would rather not see the Taliban take on a dominant role in a future Afghan government, Tehran’s financial and political backing will matter for whichever government forms when the US exits.

Iran was instrumental in helping Afghan factions overcome their differences at the 2001 Bonn Conference. And rising tensions with the US, including the designation of the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organisation, mean that Iran may have even more reasons to hedge and privately encourage the Taliban to delay reaching a deal. It may also be worth noting that Iran has, in the past few years, quietly become Afghanistan’s largest commercial partner – an unfortunate function of our own inability to prioritise trade with Kabul.

Even as the Trump administration’s fractious tone with Tehran presages stronger measures against Iran’s friends and business partners, it is worth thinking about how the region has responded to opportunities with Iran. Consider India. Recent reports suggest that, despite America’s decision to not renew exemptions for eight countries including India to buy Iranian oil without facing tough American sanctions, an exception will likely be made for India’s development of Chabahar Port. India took over Chabahar Port operations last December. Until now, India has also been the second biggest buyer of Iranian oil after China.

With an eye to CPEC, China has already indicated its desire to see Iran being included in a much larger, geopolitically competitive Belt and Road. But investment in Pakistan by Riyadh has also raised the possibility of Saudi Arabia inching towards Gwadar via Saudi Aramco. The proposed Saudi oil refinery, just 45 miles from the Iranian border, should spur a conversation and rethink about how we insulate our geopolitical imperatives from each other so that they do not lead to friction.

Best-case scenario: we can manage Saudi investment in Pakistan and encourage a broadening of CPEC to include Iran. Worst-case scenario: we end up with a mishmash of lost opportunities and unnecessary tensions with China and Iran.

The writer works for the Jinnah Institute.

Twitter @fahdhumayun

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