Pakistan and engagement with Iran

Engagement with Iran

By Huma Yusuf

While Iran flexes its regional muscles, Islamabad should coin a coherent policy for engagement with Tehran. — Photo by Reuters

The floodwaters in some parts are beginning to subside. As the Indus returns to the confines of its banks, pressing issues such as extremism, the energy crisis and regional stability will start to creep back into the headlines.

Moving on from this crisis, Islamabad will have to balance rehabilitation with the ripple effect the floods will have on matters as diverse as the economy, security and foreign policy. Without foresight and determination at this juncture, the country could struggle to stay afloat for decades to come. Much has already been written about the economic impact of the floods and the dangers of over-reliance on international aid. It has also been documented that flood-affected communities deprived of their livelihoods and aided in their hour of need by different extremist groups are now more vulnerable to radicalisation. Another aspect to consider is the impact of the floods on energy and regional stability, particularly in the context of Pakistan-Iran relations.

One important initiative that may fall victim to the flooding is the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project. Islamabad had recently announced that it would generate domestic funding for the project in light of intensified US and UN sanctions against Iran’s energy sector that are bound to discourage international investors. In the wake of the ‘super flood,’ economic collapse in Pakistan seems imminent, and Islamabad is scrambling to cut or divert spending to facilitate flood relief. It is unlikely that a multi-billion dollar energy project can proceed in this climate.

However, shelving the project — and with it, robust bilateral relations with Iran — at this time is inadvisable. As the US ratchets up the pressure against its nuclear ambitions, Iran is more determined than ever to establish itself as a key regional player. Tehran recently announced that it would host a moot for regional stakeholders to discuss ways in which to stabilise Afghanistan and brainstorm creative approaches to stem extremism and drug trafficking. While Iran flexes its regional muscles, Islamabad should coin a coherent policy for engagement with Tehran that is a departure from the on-again, off-again relationship of recent years. Such an effort will be made more complicated by the fact that Tehran is currently pursuing a strategy of multiple alliances in Afghanistan.

Officially, Tehran supports Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government in the hope that good relations with Kabul will prevent Afghanistan from becoming a platform from which to attack or undermine Iran. At the same time, Iran has been wooing Pakistan, which is a close ally of the US, in an effort to keep the western campaign against Iran in check. Given that Kabul and Islamabad have recently set aside simmering tensions about Pakistan’s interference in the Afghan insurgency, Iran’s foreign policy should bode well for trilateral relations.

Except that Iran’s main goal is to stem the influence of anti-Shia groups — particularly the Taliban, who actively persecuted Shias through the 1990s. As such, Iran is bound to oppose the plan to expand the Taliban’s political influence by including them in the Afghan government after negotiations. Such opposition would run counter to Pakistan’s goals in Afghanistan.

Iran’s official policy also contradicts ‘evidence’ recently highlighted in leaked Afghanistan war logs that, since 2004, Iranian intelligence and security agencies have been increasingly involved in training, financing and facilitating the passage of Taliban insurgents. Tehran and the Taliban are ideologically united in their opposition of western troops in the region, so this parallel effort to expand Iran’s political leverage in Afghanistan should not come as a surprise.

Indeed, analysts warn that despite historic antagonisms between Tehran and the Taliban, Iran may emerge as a new hub in the Afghan insurgency. In response to the US offensive against Iran’s nuclear ambitions and overall economy, Tehran is seeking new ways to damage America’s regional interests. If the Taliban find sanctuary in Iran, Islamabad will be forced to choose between Washington’s counter-terror demands and Tehran’s advances in terms of energy and regional cooperation.

Alongside the Taliban factor, tensions between Islamabad and Tehran over the militant group Jundallah persist. Iran has long accused Pakistan of harbouring Jundallah and facilitating an extremist Sunni agenda across the border. But in February this year, Pakistani intelligence agencies are believed to have aided Iran in intercepting Jundallah’s chief Abdolmalek Rigi. If Pakistan continues to exert pressure on Jundallah, it could salvage bilateral relations with Iran, despite the two countries’ competing agendas in Afghanistan.

This, however, may be easier said than done. A crackdown against Jundallah could stoke sectarian strife within Pakistan since the group’s activities are framed as Sunni resistance against Shia dominance. Foreign policy overtures cannot come at the cost of internal security.

The gas pipeline offers Pakistan one option for maintaining strong ties with Iran in spite of disagreements in Balochistan and Afghanistan. Shelving it now would come at great cost — the most problematic being stability and economic development in Balochistan.

Recent flooding has left dozens dead, thousands marooned, and infrastructure ravaged in Balochistan. Already, there are complaints that relief and reconstruction efforts are being focused in the Punjab and politically useful parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. To continue addressing the long-standing complaints of the Baloch about administrative neglect, the government will have to put in place urgent measures to spur economic growth in that province.

This is where Iran can help. Bilateral trade of fuel and foodstuffs, which is crucial for the Pakistani Baloch, should receive a fillip through new agreements. Moreover, plans for financing the gas pipeline should be drafted. After all, a major pipeline project will create employment, generate revenue and foster development conditions that stave off extremism. Given the toll that recent floods have taken on Pakistan’s national vitality, any diplomatic outreach within the region that can jumpstart sustainable growth should now be prioritised — even if that means juggling Iran’s multiple and contradictory policies.


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