|#1729||492||April 18, 2017||By Meenakshi Sood|
The neighbour on Pakistan’s western border that takes up much of its time and energy is Afghanistan, never Iran. Iran and Pakistan share a 900-kilometre border that causes occasional inconvenience for Islamabad but does not pose an existential threat the way Kabul does. To put things in Pakistan’s perspective, while Iran is more of a mind headache, Afghanistan is a full-blown migraine. However, the absence of grave animosity has not been enough to generate trust and goodwill between the two neighbours. They have found themselves on opposing sides on many geostrategic concerns and the benefits of closer relations have not been compelling enough. If recent media reports are any indication, this seems to be changing. After a fourteen-year hiatus, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani became the first head of state to visit Pakistan, during which the two countries signed a host of agreements on matters ranging from economic cooperation to border security[i]. Iran has shown greater flexibility than India in the Afghan peace process on the question of Afghan Taliban[ii]. Tehran even expressed its desire to join the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) for the sake of “peace and tranquility in the region”[iii]. For its part, Pakistan has tried to maintain a delicate balance between its warm relations with Saudi Arabia and warming ties with Iran. Back in 2015 when asked by Riyadh for military assistance in its war against Iran-backed Houthi forces in Yemen, Pakistan’s parliament passed a resolution proposing Islamabad “should maintain neutrality in the conflict so as to be able to play a proactive diplomatic role to end the crisis”[iv].Things could not have been better. Yet, dig deeper and one realizes the gulf between appearances and reality.
Take the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline for example, symbolic of the overall relationship between Islamabad and Tehran. The so-called ‘Peace Pipeline’ promises to alleviate Pakistan’s growing energy need by providing it with natural gas, its main source of primary energy, from its next door neighbour. Not only does it make geographic and economic sense to import gas from Iran, relative to other fossil fuels it is also an environment friendly source of energy. As per Asian Development Bank, from FY2015 to FY2028, gas demand is projected to increase to 8,212 MMCFD, while domestic gas production will decline to 1,676 MMCFD, resulting in a significant shortfall of about 6,536 MMCFD by FY2028. Pakistan needs to find external sources to bridge the demand-supply gap, and fast[v]. The gas pipeline signed during President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s tenure promised to do just that through import of 22 million cubic meters per day (mcm/d) of gas by Pakistan. Pakistan is yet to complete the construction of its side of the pipeline, which was due to be completed by 2014 as per the original agreement. The delay was attributed to UN and US sanctions against Iran over its nuclear programme. Yet most of the sanctions have been lifted two years ago. Every couple of months, the headlines in newspapers vacillate between giving the next potential date for completion and writing the project’s obituary, with the end nowhere in sight. In the meantime, India walked away from what was originally the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline and is working with Iran on an undersea gas pipeline that will bypass Pakistan[vi]. The proposed 1,400 km pipeline will connect the Iranian port city of Chabahar located in southeastern Iran to the Gujarat coast on India’s western sector. Iran was an import source of India’s energy supply even during sanctions against the former, and has now become its third-largest supplier[vii]. It is in Iran’s interests to cultivate relations with the more important world players so as to never allow a consensus on sanctions against it. In this regard, India, not Pakistan, is a more revered partner. Speaking on Iran’s strategy at the World Economic Forum, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said, “China, Russia and India remain our important international partners. They have remained with us through our difficult times”[viii].
Pakistan has its own loyalty issues. Gen Raheel Sharif, Pakistan’s former army chief, was appointed to lead the 39-nation Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT)[ix]. Wrongly dubbed as the ‘Muslim NATO’, it is dominated by Saudi Arabia and excludes its arch-rival Iran. According to National Security Adviser Nasser Janjua, Gen Sharif’s appointment will help “remove internal misunderstandings among Muslim countries” and benefit even the “anti-alliance countries, including Iran"[x]. Not surprisingly, this is not how Pakistan’s western neighbour sees things[xi]. Even within Pakistan the announcement has sparked intense debate over its effect on sectarian violence within the country that is exacerbated by the decades-long standoff between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran[xii]. But Pakistan knows which side its bread is buttered. Saudi Arabia has long been a close ally and an indispensible source of foreign aid. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is personally indebted to the nation for saving his life after the military coup by Musharraf. Given the current alignment of interests, Pakistan-Iran relations, much like the ‘peace pipeline’, are on to yet another false start.
[i] ‘Iran to boost security and trade ties with Pakistan’, 26 March 2016, AlJazeera
[ii] ‘Taliban Confirms Delegation's Visit to Iran’, 15 October 2016, Tolo News
[iv] ‘Parliament calls for neutrality in Yemen conflict’, 10 April 2015, DAWN
[v] RRP Sector Overview, ADB
[vi] ‘India, Iran close to strike $4.5B undersea gas pipeline deal’, Aditya Bhat, 17 March 2016, International Business Times
[vii] ‘Can Iran and India Turn the Page?’, BharathGopalaswamy and Amir Handjani, 14 January 2017, The National Interest
[viii] ‘Iran in the Region and the World’, World Economic Forum
[ix] ‘Former Pakistan army chief Raheel Sharif to lead 'Muslim Nato'’, Jon Boone, 8 January 2017, The Guardian
[x] ‘Raheel Sharif leading Saudi alliance will bring unity to Muslim world: Nasser Janjua’, Fahad Chaudhry, 27 March 2017, DAWN
[xi] ‘Iran expresses reservations on Raheel Sharif’s role in Saudi military alliance’, 3 April 2017, Geo News
[xii]Raheel Sharif and the Islamic military alliance: Controversial or clear?’, 31 March 2017, DAWN