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Pak-Iran Ties: Pakistan Should not Allow Middle East proxy wars to come to its shores

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Pakistan-Iran relations began on a positive tone. Iran was the first country to recognise the newly-independent Pakistan and the Shah of Iran was the first head of state to pay a visit where he was welcomed with much ardour. Iran also provided Pakistan much support in both the 1965 and 1971 wars against India. However, after the United States’ war against the Soviets in the 1980s where Pakistan was seen as a staunch US ally, the relationship started going downhill. The US sanctions on Tehran fuelled this trajectory. Presently, the economic cooperation is below its capacity and there are frequent cross border scuffles. There have also been incidents involving threats of surgical strikes, a downed drone and the case of an Indian spy who had taken refuge in Chabahar (Iran).

On April 21, Prime Minister Imran Khan visited Iran on his maiden trip to the country. Both countries agreed to boost security and economic cooperation as well as revitalise the stalled Iran-Pakistan (IP) Gas Pipeline. It was also agreed to set up a Joint Rapid Reaction Force to guard the border.

Mr. Khan’s visit came in the backdrop of the killings in Ormara, Balochistan which claimed at least fourteen lives. Cross-border incidents along the 959-km border between the two countries are not a new feature. It is one of the main disputes in the bilateral relationship. There has, however, been a relative quiet in such incidents, mainly due to the establishment of the Southern Command of the Frontier Constabulary (FC) last year. In addition to increasing the number its security forces along the border, it was recently announced by Pakistan that it has started to fence the border to bolster security efforts.

While the authorities on either side also cannot deny the fact that people in both Iran and Pakistan part of Balochistan are struggling for their respective political rights, Tehran claims that the dissenters, which are funded by some Gulf countries, seek shelter in the Pakistani part of Balochistan and use that as a base to carry out activities. Similarly, authorities on the Pakistani side point to Zainabiyoun Brigade on the Iranian side, which facilitate anti-Pakistan sentiments.

Next comes the issue of the IP pipeline – a project under discussion since 1994, initially involving India which backed out in 2009 and vocally opposed by the US since Washington claimed it would violate sanctions. In February 2019, Iran issued a formal notice to take Pakistan to the International Court of Arbitration over lack of progress from its end on the project. Iran has already completed its end of the pipeline with an investment of above $2 billion. According to the Gas Sales Purchase Agreement (GSPA), Pakistan is bound to pay $1 million per day to Iran from January 1, 2015 under the penalty clause.

While leaders on both sides have time and again stated that neither country’s soil will be used against the other, prudence demands that more active measures need to be taken. First and foremost, measures need to be taken to address the grievances of the Baloch population on both sides of the border so they do not resort to looking for affiliates on the other side. A sense of place and identity also needs to be created so that outside powers do not take up the vacuum that is sure to be left by lack of affinity. If this issue is not addressed, no amount of increasing border forces or setting up walls can help security measures.

The joint economic cooperation between Iran and Pakistan has been fixed at a level of $ 5 billion till the year 2021, but so far the trade between the two sides is not even close to achieving this target. Secondly, in the economic arena, it is important that there should be direct air links between the two countries. Formal banking channels also need to be set up and trade needs to be carried out even if through barter system in order to circumvent the sanctions on Iran. Furthermore, the existing high non-tariff barriers and customs duty need to be brought down. Also, infrastructure such as road and rail links between the two countries needs to be improved.

Iran has been carrying out development programmes for the Makran coast in recent years. To support it stance, Iran has kept the export of electricity to Gwadar port on its pay bill.  It would be beneficial for Pakistan, if it accepts Iran’s offer to supply 3,000 megawatts of electricity, especially given the energy dearth it faces. Even though Pakistan has categorically told Iran that because of the US sanctions, work on the IP pipeline project is impossible, it should consider the fact that India is continuing work on Chabahar despite the same threat. If Pakistan does not take immediate measures, it could push Iran further towards India. If completed, the pipeline project can help energy deficit Pakistan ten folds.

In addition to everything else, given the US-Iran tensions, the Pakistan Foreign Minister should not have maintained neutrality. Instead, he should have stated that Pakistan would view the conflict from an objective lens and call for a de-escalation of tensions.

Finally, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are investing in Gwadar which essentially means at the doorstep of their arch rival Iran. Whatever motives they may have, Pakistan needs to be cognizant and aware of the fact that it should not allow Middle East proxy wars to come to its shores. At the end of the day, the Arabs can leave, they have nothing to lose but neighbours (in this case Iran) are here to stay.

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