The Significance of Raisi’s Visit to Pakistan


The Iranian president’s official trip to Pakistan on 22 April 2024 dominated the country’s media landscape owing to its overwhelming focus on public diplomacy and symbolism. Not only did the Iranian dignitary meet political leaders and address intelligentsia and students but was also awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Karachi, one of the oldest universities in the country. Islamabad named an important boulevard Iran Avenue to reciprocate Tehran’s Mohammad Ali Jenah Expressway which dates to the pre-1979 era.

Occurring against the backdrop of an alleged Israeli symbolic counterattack, the Iranian president’s Pakistan sojourn deflected criticism at home to favourable defiant rhetoric lauded by the Pakistani people during his frequent interactions in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi. After laying flowers on Dr. Allama Iqbal’s mausoleum, he threatened Israel while speaking to Punjab’s elite, “If the Zionist regime once again makes a mistake and attacks the sacred land of Iran, the situation will be different, and it is not clear whether anything will remain of this regime.” Ignoring the third-country rule, he did not hesitate to lambast Washington. “Today the greatest violators of human rights are the Americans and Westerners, and their claim of defending human rights is also empty.”

As much as Pakistan opposes Israeli actions in Gaza, it does not fully endorse Iran’s policy and stratagem of employing armed militias. Interestingly, less than two weeks before the visit, Islamabad declared Liwa Zainebiyoun (the Followers of Zainab Brigade) a “terrorist organization.” The curious timing of the decision sheds light on Islamabad’s attempts to limit Tehran’s expectations from the presidential visit taking place after eight years and the first of any foreign head of government or state to Pakistan since the elected government took office in March. Not the prime minister himself but a federal minister received the dignitary while President Ebrahim Raisi did not attend the ceremony for the Nishan-e-Pakistan recipients (Grand Cross of the Order of Pakistan), the country’s highest civilian honour.

In the joint press conference with his Pakistani counterpart, President Raisi refrained from mentioning disputed Jammu and Kashmir but repeatedly referred to Gaza and Palestine. He  said that Iran supports “all UNSC resolutions and is against all oppression.” Ironically, the 13th paragraph of the joint statement refers to the issue of Kashmir that must be resolved “through dialogue and peaceful means based on the will of the people of that region, and in accordance with international law.” Eight memorandums of understanding (MoUs) were signed and the two sides, in principle, agreed to set up a consultation system at the foreign minister level to develop a joint strategy to combat arms trafficking, smuggling and cross-border terrorism. In his meeting with the Iranian president, Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff General Asim Munir termed the Pak-Iran border as “of peace and friendship.”  President Raisi vowed for cooperation between the two armed forces “to attain peace and stability.” India’s presence on Iran’s side of the Makran coast irks Pakistan while Tehran believes its enemies are harboring Sunni Baloch militants on the Pakistani side. Yet, the joint statement refers to Chabahar and Gwadar as sister ports where both neighbors pledged to “expand mutually beneficial and enduring linkages.”

Notwithstanding such contradictions, both states pledged to expand their annual trade from $2 billion to $10 billion but without declaring a timeframe. Setting up markets along the border and relying on barter trade is an unrealistic objective. While the largely parallel economies agreed to “expeditiously finalize” the free trade agreement (FTA), it is worth mentioning that Islamabad and Ankara took over a decade to reach a preferential trade agreement (PTA). Tehran and Islamabad had agreed to the initial free trade agreement (FTA) draft in 2016, sparking similar hopes which did not materialize.

The so-called Peace Pipeline Project is the elephant in the room due to its outrageous terms, agreed upon by then and current President Asif Ali Zardari with the nod of the Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, coupled with the perpetuating US sanctions. Signed in 2010 and slated for completion in December 2014 at the of cost $7.6 billion, Iran committed to pump 750 million cubic feet of gas to Pakistan daily by mid-2015. For failing to build its part of the pipeline by December 30, 2014, Zardari had accepted that Islamabad would pay a $3 million fine daily until the completion of the pipeline. Tehran hurriedly built its side of the 1,100 kilometer pipeline at the expense of approximately $1billion. However, leading banks were unwilling to finance the project due to UNSC and US sanctions while the White House repeatedly warned Islamabad against buying Iranian petrochemicals. Assessing Pakistan’s worsening energy crisis amidst a rising population and the absence of an alternate pipeline from the Gulf states, Tehran extended the deadline by a decade (until March 2024) but did not waive the daily penalty clause. If Pakistan reneges on the agreement, it will have to pay nearly $18 billion in fines alone. With no substitute pipeline from any of its Gulf partners on the cards, Pakistan’s baffling quagmire is to meet the energy needs of 240 million people, rising by 40 million since 2010. Iran’s rash foreign and security policies heighten Pakistan’s fears of relying on such a neighbor for vital, long-term energy security.

Though talk of reviving the Peace Pipeline Project has grown in recent weeks, Islamabad has yet to seek a waiver from Washington. In February, Pakistan approved the construction of the first phase (the 80 kilometer section) of the gas pipeline from the Iranian border to Gwadar. Meanwhile, the US State Department warned Pakistan about the risk of secondary curbs. Mathew Miller, the State Department spokesperson said, “We always advise everyone that doing business with Iran runs the risk of touching upon and coming in contact with our sanctions, and would advise everyone to consider that very carefully.” If a new IMF program is to be agreed upon, Islamabad would have to suspend plans to construct the pipeline. It is a matter of time before Pakistan resorts to international arbitration over the outrageous terms of the gas pipeline project.

Iran won a major battle of perception despite its rash border attack four months ago. Islamabad consented to Raisi’s three-day visit to its three nerve centers where President Raisi attempted to whitewash Tehran’s misdeeds against Pakistan and the Arab states. The Pakistani government failed to see Iran’s ruthless pursuit of its national interest against its own and it could be said that President Raisi successfully played with a sentimental Pakistani nation and in the face of humiliating Israeli counterattacks, the Iranian government via Raisi’s visit found a clever distraction for the Iranian people. As Pakistan faces a worsening energy crisis, Iran could make its case to the public about the urgency to build the gas pipeline in defiance of US intimidation. Iran might be able to double bilateral trade in a decade.

Editorial Team