|President Asif Ali Zardari paid a brief but important visit to Iran on Saturday|
By Arshad Ali Shah
President Asif Ali Zardari paid a brief but important visit to Iran on Saturday. On the eve of his visit, Foreign Office Spokesperson Tehmina Janjua in her weekly briefing to media in Islamabad termed President Zardari’s visit to Iran as “important and integral to Pakistan’s ongoing efforts to deepen engagements with a brotherly neighbour”. Zardari had visited Iran last June to attend an anti-terrorism conference there. The visit has been hailed by many Pakistani political leaders and political and security analysts. They opined that it would improve the bilateral relations between the two Muslim countries as well as would reduce the foreign interference in the region.Pakistan and Iran relations were very cordial during the Shah era. They remained members of the Baghdad Pact and amicably resolved their border issue. Iran successfully mediated between Pakistan and Afghanistan in the 1960’s and supported Pakistan during its wars with India in 1965 and 1971.In the 1990’s Pakistan-Iran relations were negatively affected because of their support to opposing groups in Afghanistan, competition for influence in Central Asian States, and Shia-Sunni conflict in Pakistan. The post 9/11 regional environment provided ample opportunity to both Pakistan and Iran to forget the past annoyances and improve their bilateral relations. The Taliban regime, the major irritant between the two countries has been removed. The government of Pakistan also took some concrete steps to eliminate sectarianism from the country that also lessened the tension between the two countries. These developments paved the way for a close relationship and efforts were made to revive their earlier closeness. However, a little improvement has been done and they could not exploit the situation according to their potential. The close ties of Iran with India and Pakistan, close collaboration with US, arch-rival of Iran, in war on terror were the main factors that hampered their rapprochement.The present democratic government of Pakistan is determined to improve its relations with Iran, the most important and influential neighbour of Pakistan. Iran also made some overtures towards Pakistan and pledged $100million to Pakistan for flood victims. There are various factors that contributed to the present closeness between Pakistan and Iran. First, President Obama has already announced drawdown plan from Afghanistan. It is high time for both Pakistan and Iran to accommodate each other’s strategic and economic interests in Afghanistan. They should avoid the repetition of the past short-sighted policies in Afghanistan that led to another intervention in Afghanistan by the superpower. During the civil war in Afghanistan, Pakistan supported the Pakhtun Taliban while Iran supported the Tajik Northern Alliance. Pakistan and Iran can use their influence on the Taliban and on the Northern Alliance respectively to bring them to the negotiation table and avoid another civil war in the post-US Afghanistan. Second, it is a fact that continuous instability in one country never remains domestic affair and spreads to other neighbouring countries if meaningful and timely preventive measures are not taken by the regional states. This fact has now been realized by the leaders of Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan and they met on the sideline of the ant-terrorism conference held in Tehran on June 25. They agreed to expand and strengthen trilateral cooperation for peace, stability and development in the region. The prolong presence of the foreign troops in Afghanistan has not only jeopardized the peace and security of Afghanistan but also of the entire region. Pakistan has suffered more than any other country in the region both in terms of money lose and human casualties. Iran has also been targeted by several terrorist attacks. Jundullah, anti-Iranian Sunni militant group, was the main actor behind these attacks. Jundullah’s anti-Iran activities on the Iranian soil have also created rift in Pakistan-Iran relations. To assuage Iran’s concerns, Pakistan arrested several Jundullah leaders and handed them over to Iranian authorities.Third, the current standoff between the US and Pakistan compelled the latter to look for other regional allies to strengthen its position in the region. Pakistan-US relations have been tense since Raymond Davis affairs. It touched their lowest ebb when, on May 2, the US forces killed Al-Qaeda leader, Osama Bin Laden in a unilateral operation in Abbottabad. Besides, the continuous drone attacks in the tribal areas and US attempt to sideline Pakistan in the reconciliation process with the Taliban to minimize the Pakistan’s role in the post-withdrawal period in Afghanistan has created rift between Pakistan and America. Fourth, at present, India-Iran relations are at nadir. India’s twice vote against Iran’s nuclear programme at IAEA, its withdrawal from Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline agreement and now inability to pay for Iran’s crude oil distanced itself from Iran. These steps compel Iran to move towards Pakistan. In the post-cold war period, there was convergence of interests between Iran and India in a number of areas that brought them closer, for example, India’s access to Afghanistan and Central Asia, containing the Taliban in Afghanistan, and trade particularly in energy sector. India signed strategic pact with Iran in 2003. Fifth, Pakistan and Iran are committed to raise bilateral trade from one billion dollars to four billion dollars. The president of Pakistan proposed various proposals to his counterpart for enhancing bilateral trade such as currency swap accord, and bilateral free trade agreement. At present, there is an acute energy crisis in Pakistan and we need Iranian gas to overcome this shortage. This fact has been recently been acknowledged by Asim Hussain, Pakistani minister for petroleum saying that, ‘Our dependence on the Iran pipeline is very high. There is no other substitute at present to meet our growing demand for energy’. Therefore, despite US pressure, Pakistan went forward and signed Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline without India in June 2010. India withdrew from the project under US pressure. Pakistan would get 750 million cubic feet gas from this project which would start by 2014. Pakistan is also taking keen interest to import of electricity from Iran.The recent tilt of Pakistan towards Iran created doubts in the minds of Saudi brothers. Saudi Arab’s opposition to Zardari’s participation in the international conference against terrorism in Tehran and meeting of Saudi’s ambassador to Pakistan with president Zardari on the eve of his visit to Iran clear this point. Pakistan has very close economic and political relations with Saudi Arabia. Now there is a need of shrewd diplomacy on the part of Pakistan to remove Saudi suspicions and to tell them that the present closeness with Iran would not suffer our strong bilateral relations. The regional approach is the most viable option for resolving the issues confronted by the region. Therefore, the current warmth in the Pakistan-Iran relations is a welcome step in a changing regional scenario and this process of mutual interaction at the highest level should be continued in future.