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The Missing Link In Pakistan Iran Relationship

27 October 2009 Pakistan-Iran relations are at their lowest ebb. The historic congeniality of ties is now an academic reference. Geopolitical and strategic compulsions have worked as a divisive force, rather than proving to be an adhesive one.

27 October 2009 Pakistan-Iran relations are at their lowest ebb. The historic congeniality of ties is now an academic reference. Geopolitical and strategic compulsions have worked as a divisive force, rather than proving to be an adhesive one.

A host of factors are behind such a sad state of affairs, the chief among them being the unrelenting involvement of external forces and a host of non-state actors. The United States' meddling and the rise of radicalism in the region have further exacerbated the situation. And now with Tehran pointing a finger at Islamabad for the deteriorating law and order situation in its restive southeast, the myth of regional cooperation has come to a naught. Yet, the desire on the part of respective governments to remain peaceful and productive neighbours is promising, and needs to be harnessed.

The suicide attack on the elite Revolutionary Guards, which targeted its top commanders, has come as a serious jolt to their bilateral relations. Iran had no qualms in blaming Pakistan for allegedly patronising terror outfits that are apparently operating with impunity in the region. This Tehran did without giving a thought to the simmering unrest in its Sistan-Balochistan province, which finds its locale in socio-economic discrimination and political discord with the revolutionary regime. Perhaps, the rise of Talebanisation in Pakistan, and its snowballing effect across the borders, are responsible for the ensuing mistrust. It is one of the grey areas that need to be worked upon to address concerns on peace and security.

The latest round of acrimony has its roots in recent history. Irrespective of the fact that both countries enjoy a host of common denominators in their outlook towards the region and religion, a multiple of non-state actors spoiled the show. Iran's obsession to export the revolution across the borders has psychologically been contested by the Sunni majority in Pakistan. Thus, the emergence of a strong pro-Iran Shia constituency led to discord with the local populace. Moreover, the then military regime in Pakistan found in it an axe to grind, as it sought to align itself with Saudi Arabia by encouraging its own radical school of thought to take roots in the country. The outcome was a proxy war of sorts between extremist organisations, which graduated to militancy level from one being of intellectual discourse. The ultimate victims were believers from the Sunni and Shia school of thought - who were at the receiving end as radical groups unleashed a reign of terror.

To further compound the situation was the backlash of jihad in Afghanistan. Pakistan, which had been instrumental in supporting the Mujahideen, had a difficult time in balancing its relations with Iran. Tehran suspected the mercenaries as paid-agents of the United States. Similarly, the radical version of belief that the mujahideen practised was in conflict with the theological interpretations of Shia Iran. Such an approach led to rise of sectarian tendencies in Pakistan - turning it into a hotbed of political extremism. Regrettably, Iran rode the wrong horse in Pakistan, banking on amateurs who were naïve to politics and lacked standing in Shia community. Thus, their bilateral relations hit the rough patch, impacting all spheres of life.

Both the countries have been at odds in economic cooperation, as well. Their potential of bilateral trade and geographical proximity has not been explored to its maximum. Neither has the three-member Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO), comprising Pakistan, Iran and Turkey, taken off nor has the ambitious $7.5 billion India-Pakistan-Iran (IPI) gas pipeline project. Both the projects, which carry lifeline status for regional integration and cooperation have been a victim of bilateral distrust, and concurrently found their genesis in foreign meddling.

The evolving geostrategic equation demands Islamabad and Tehran to forge renewed consensus on issues of bilateral cooperation. Notwithstanding the recent tensions and suspicions, there is a treasure of history that needs to be tapped. There are many firsts in their ties: Iran was the first to recognise Pakistan; it safely guarded Pakistan's air fleet on its soil during the latter's war with India; a country that coined the term of bartering oil, and also provided it free of cost in times of need. Their political economy is a source of strength, and has been a blessing in disguise in times of adversity. It is, thus, incumbent upon both the countries to minutely monitor such elements who have acted as spoilers in their relations.

The sense of fraternity, literally hurt and disturbed at the moment, has to come into play again. Iran should not suspect Pakistan for the latter's allied status with the US. Nor should it see Islamabad as having hand in destabilising its southern provinces as part of an imperialistic agenda. Pakistan, on its part, should take a leap forward in cementing a new trade and commerce nexus with Iran, and can act as a catalyst in pulling Tehran from its self-afflicted isolation on the international front.

Islamabad can also act as a bridge for Tehran in softening its ties with Washington, as it did for Beijing. It's time to be aware of non-state actors at work - bent upon derailing their relations as well as jeopardising the 
geopolitical peace.

Ishtiaq Ali Mehkri is Khaleej Times' 
Assistant Editor (Opinion). Write to him at mehkri@khaleejtimes.com


Writer: Ishtiaq Ali Mehkri

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