Implications Of Pak-Iran relationship For CPEC
Economic integration and trading blocs are central features of the modern world. The success stories of the European Union and Association of Southeast Asian Nations are a testament to the fact. Contrary to this, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation so far failed to flourish but Pakistan can utilise CPEC as a much better substitute.
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has been planned to encourage regional connectivity between China, Pakistan and Eurasia and it certainly has geopolitical implications for Pakistan and the broader region. Its implementation depends on various factors that include the myriad of security threats and political challenges it faces, all of which need to be factored in for a holistic understanding of its potential.
CPEC’s promise, as far as generating employment and developing much-needed infrastructure is concerned, is stability for Balochistan and potentially nullifying some of the underlying causes of a Baloch insurgency. For their part, the Baloch political leaders have viewed CPEC with positivity, given the prospects of economic growth for Pakistan’s biggest but most impoverished, province.
The city of Gwadar in Balochistan is recognised as the backbone of CPEC. For the last 25 years, there has always been much hype about the potential of Gwadar. Pakistan first promoted the idea of the port as a gateway to the Central Asian countries in early 1990s, and then in early 2000s when it was spoken of as the next Dubai. Sadly, instead of all the hype, Gwadar has failed to generate any kind of maintainable reward for the people of Balochistan. For the last 20 years, activities in realty sector in Gwadar have been peaking but the benefits have not benefited the common people. The city still lacks the basic resource of water for its existing population. This implies such activities have no benefits for ordinary people.
The people of Balochistan should be the biggest beneficiary and the feeling that others are exploiting their resources should be tackled. The people of Gwadar and Balochistan should not feel alienated because of CPEC.
A stable Afghanistan and economically-integrated Iran will mitigate threats. We must understand that prosperity in Balochistan is not achievable without workable/beneficial relations with Afghanistan and Iran. If we particularly talk about Gwadar and CPEC then Iran is pertinent for its success.
Pakistan and Iran enjoys good relations since the Partition. They have had fruitful pacts concerning diverse socioeconomic arenas. After the founding of Pakistan in August 1947, Iran was the first country to recognize it. In return, Pakistan went on to support Iran on many occasions and the relations between them have strengthened ever since.
Pakistan always had difficulty in prioritising its interests with Iran. The best example in recent history is the gas pipeline that would deliver natural gas to parts of Pakistan in dire need of energy was stopped due to the opposition from the United States and Saudi Arabia. External players are alleged to be the main financier of insurgency groups operating in Iran and Pakistan, specifically Balochistan.
More insurgency in the highly-volatile region will have a demoralising influence on the people of both sides. Iran and Pakistan are facing social and economic troubles. They are challenging the US attempts to isolate them.
Pakistan is prone to sponsored insurgency, terrorist attacks and ethnic tensions. On the other hand, Iran is facing fresh sanctions on its oil industry and banks resulting in local discontent. More than ever, Pakistan and Iran need stable relations and both countries must understand external players will make that harder than ever to reach this.
During the last election, Imran Khan campaigned on a steadily pro-Iranian platform, asserting to advance Pakistan’s relations with Iran, but since taking office, he has apparently done the opposite, bolstering his country’s affiliation with Saudi Arabia. Ever since the Saudi-Iran enmity has deepened, Pakistan has made a definite effort to stay impartial. Islamabad resisted Saudi-backed campaigns to attack the Syrian government in 2013 and disapproved US airstrikes against the Assad regime in 2018. And we must not forget that in 2015, Pakistan’s parliament voted against sending Pakistani troops to Yemen.
In the past, Imran Khan has always encouraged closer ties with Tehran. His party opposed the employment of General Sharif to lead the Islamic counter-terrorism coalition because it could disturb country’s relations with Iran. Since joining the PM office, the pressure of economic calamity had required Khan to contain Saudi backing. Nonetheless, he has not yet permitted Riyadh’s mounting influence to unsettle the Pakistan-Iran relationship.
CPEC is a vital venture that can shape the relations between the three countries in the future. Iran is keen to join CPEC for quite some time but still waiting for an affirmative response from Pakistan. However, Saudi Arabia with the blessing of Pakistan is ready to invest billions in CPEC. This would be the first time that the Kingdom has directly obtained stakes in Pakistan’s economy. The incumbent government owing to its pervious stance must also take efforts to put in place Iran as a partner.
Partnership with Iran on the CPEC can grant relief to Pakistan in a number of ways. Pakistan is constantly trying to find inexpensive energy from diverse sources. Iran can be an opportunity for Pakistan in a trilateral agreement between Pakistan, Iran and China, particularly for development of Balochistan. Facility of electricity (few villages near the border are already getting it) and gas from across the border can be tremendously cost effective. It is really important that treaties that have been hindered due to US pressure/sanctions are realised now. Pakistan can further plan projects such as rail links between Gwadar and Chabahar, a shipping service, and an air link between Gwadar to Iran.
Engaging Iran can be a win-win situation for all the stakeholders especially for people of Balochistan. It is the least costly, yet safe way for Iran and for Pakistan to move their attention to markets beyond the Persian Gulf and into Central Asia all the way up into Eastern Europe. Most importantly once Iran’s stakes are involved in Pakistan, both the countries will take concrete measures to marginalise insurgency groups operating in Iran and Pakistan, ensuring a peaceful Balochistan and Sistan-Baluchestan.
The author is a PhD in Social Marketing at University of Hertfordshire UK and can be reached on Twitter @sonybaloch