On April 20, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan paid a 24-hour official visit to Iran on the invitation of the country’s President Hassan Rouhani. The overnight trip, including a brief stop-over in Mashhad to visit the shrine of Imam Raza, concluded with mixed results. There was no breakthrough agreement between the two countries except for the usual cultural symbolism and diplomatic rhetoric. Neither Pakistan’s foreign minister nor its defense minister were part of the entourage. Yet, Imran Khan held delegation-level talks with his counterpart Hassan Rouhani after a one-on-one meeting. He also called on Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.
The balancing act?
After Imran Khan’s two back-to-back trips to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the Iran visit was touted as a balancing act by certain media agencies. Relations between Pakistan and Iran have, however, been anything but cordial. Iran’s recruitment of mercenaries, its intrusion into Pakistan from the shared Balochistan border and its handing over of administrative control of Chabahar port to India has led Pakistan to see its southwestern neighbor as a hostile actor. On the other hand, Tehran perceives Islamabad to be allied with the Gulf Arab states against its interests. Bilateral grievances as well as the targeted killing of 14 Pakistani nationals traveling from Gwadar to Ormara along the Makran Coast on April 18 threw a spanner in the forthcoming visit of the Pakistani leader. The passengers were offloaded from their buses at a fake checkpoint and were identified as belonging to Pakistan’s armed forces before being executed at close range. The next day, Pakistan publicly criticized Iran over its inaction in curbing terrorism from within its territory.
A statement by Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) said, “Pakistan has repeatedly shared intelligence about these activities” and information about “the hubs of these Baloch terrorist organizations in Iran, having training camps and logistics bases across the border” on a number of occasions. However, “Unfortunately, no action has been taken by Iran in this regard, to date,” stated the diplomatic demarche handed over to the Iranian ambassador.
The Foreign Minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, also claimed that forensic evidence, as well as intelligence reports, confirm that the Baloch militants involved in the attack were trained in Iran and were given safe passage into the sparsely-guarded frontier with Pakistan. Interestingly, Islamabad made the news of the Iranian ambassador’s summoning public while the text of its protest letter was leaked as well.
According to the Ministry’s letter, Baloch Raji Aajoi Sangar (BRAS), an umbrella organization of three Baloch militant organizations, claimed responsibility for the terrorist act. Though Iran has not commented specifically, Pakistan has claimed that 15 to 20 men wearing the uniform of Pakistan’s paramilitary forces entered from Iran’s Balochistan border region.
Pakistan alleges that Iran has been non-responsive despite on numerous earlier occasions sharing “information about the hubs of these Baloch terrorist organizations in Iran, having training camps and logistics bases across the border.”
In response, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif condemned the killings through a tweet while adding, “Terrorists, extremists & their sponsors are terrified by close relations between Muslim states. Iran stands with the people and government of Pakistan.” Later, he also spoke to his counterpart over the phone.
Managing border tensions
Pakistan announced six measures and proposals to secure its border with Iran.
• To fence its 950km border with Iran the way the Pak-Afghan border is being fenced.
• Heli-surveillance to be conducted by the two countries.
• A new command, headquartered in Turbat, has been formed to effectively handle border issues.
• A new Frontier Corps has been raised to effectively manage the border.
• Joint border centers to be established based on consultations between Pakistan and Iran.
• Border patrolling exercises to be synchronized.
Prime Minister Imran Khan raised contentious issues with his counterpart while handing over a dossier containing evidence of clandestine activities carried out from Iranian soil. Tehran also complained of Jaish al-Adl’s activities and cross-border attacks against its security and border troops.
Both neighbors will continue their discussions on improving border security under the existing mechanism by introducing the new measures as suggested by Islamabad. The two sides have agreed to hold follow-up meetings for the High Border Commission in May, the Security Committee in June, and the Joint Consular Commission in July in Islamabad. The modalities of new crossing points at Gabd-Reemdan and Mand-Pishien along with the new border market will be taken up in the forthcoming meeting of the High Border Commission. Imran Khan also invited Hassan Rouhani to visit Pakistan.
Prime Minister Imran Khan won praise from the Iranian people for his statement that had the British not colonized the region, “we would not be needing interpreters.” He was referring to Persian being the language of the royal court and judiciary at the time of the Mughals. Khan’s admission that Pakistan’s soil had been used for terror attacks inside Iran received much criticism in Islamabad. Khan’s party spokesperson could not spin his remark in his favor as the Prime Minister did not mention to Iran that its soil had been used by militants and Indian intelligence operatives to operate against Pakistan.
On the economic front, the progress was more cosmetic than real. The delegation-level talks did take up the matter of improving bilateral commerce but no significant way was spelt out in the joint communique. There was no progress on the controversial and stalled Pakistan-Iran gas pipeline approved by Pakistan’s former President Asif Ali Zardari.
Opening a new chapter in ties?
As much as Imran Khan’s visit satisfied the need for the symbolic balancing of ties, it also appeased his Shiite support base in Karachi, Hyderabad, parts of Jhang, Lahore and in the Afghanistan-bordering Kurram region. The Persian language press covered Imran Khan’s visit extensively while continuing to attack Pakistan for its pro-Saudi policies.
Though Tehran has the support of influential ministers within Imran Khan’s cabinet, tangible progress in bilateral relations with Islamabad will be an uphill task. Benefiting from the presence of a favorable lobby in Islamabad’s power corridors as well as in the three main opposition parties, Iran will increase its ministerial and secretarial level bilateral visits and agreements. Pakistan, however, is extremely cautious of making any moves which can result in US sanctions. The number of pilgrim and logistical routes (land and air) will increase but under the watchful eye of Pakistan’s security agencies. It won’t be a field day for the pilgrims, Shiite zealots and their handlers like it used to be from 2008 to 2013 in particular.
There is no doubt that the symbolism of Imran Khan’s visit along with a significantly pro-Iranian delegation boosts the confidence of the Shiite lobby in Pakistan, but at the same time this is alarming to Pakistan’s military establishment as well as to its intelligentsia which sees Iran as being the second prime threat to Pakistan’s national security after India. Iran, on the other hand, needs Pakistan more than ever due to back-to-back US sanctions and its worsening domestic situation. Tehran’s best bet will be to improve its soft power in Shiite and anti-Arab circles in Pakistan while improving the working relationship with Pakistan’s military to curb terrorism and militancy. Thus, Iran’s support in tracking and arresting the militants involved in the massacre of 14 Pakistani nationals as well as destroying their safe havens is a real test of Tehran’s seriousness.