Pakistan-Iran Relations: Complex Dynamics

Pakistan and Iran had traditionally enjoyed cordial relations. When Pakistan was formed, Iran was the first country to recognize it. Iran (under Reza Shah Pahlavi) and Pakistan both were part of the western capitalist camp during the tight bipolarity of the cold war. Both were part of CENTO (originally known as Baghdad Pact) military alliance formed to contain Soviet influence. Iran even went over the board in terms of providing critical support to Pakistan during 1965 and 1971 wars. Iran also provided material support for Pakistan’s counter insurgency operations against Baluch separatists in 1970’s by sending in cobra gunships to assist Pakistan’s COIN operations. However, Pakistan-Iran relations changed rapidly in the aftermath of 1979 Iranian revolution which brought Khomeini into power and changed Iran’s outlook like never before.

In order to clearly understand the complex dynamics of Pak-Iran bi-lateral relations, we would go over different aspects of this relationship in the context of:

  • CPEC and India’s Chabahar gambit
  • Involvement of foreign funded proxies and subversive elements
  • Afghan conundrum and the rise of ISIS-Khorasan
  • Pakistan’s delicate diplomatic balancing between Saudi Arabia and Iran 
  • CPEC and India’s Chabahar Gambit

Iran, India and Afghanistan in 2016 signed a transit accord to use Chabahar Port. India constructed Zaranj-Delaram highway in Afghanistan. Through this accord, the aim was to connect Iran-Afghan border town of Zaranj with the Iranian road network up to Chabahar in Iran’s Sistan Baluchistan. India’s Chabahar gambit is a masterstroke of realpolitik according to Indian strategic elite who view the region through a “Neo Curzonian” lens.

Indian strategists feared that a joint Pak-Chinese naval presence at Gwadar (mouth of Strait of Hormuz) would create a “Hormuz Dilemma” for India (akin to Malacca Dilemma for China) as most of India’s oil supplies pass from Strait of Hormuz. Chabahar in their perception would give India more regional strategic breathing space by outflanking China and by circumventing Pakistan for an alternative route to Afghanistan and Central Asia. Chabahar would also, in the opinion of Indian strategic thinkers, reduce Afghanistan’s dependency on Pakistan’s ports as Afghanistan is a landlocked country. India plans to invest approximately $500 million in Chabahar Port project.

These developments caused concern within the Pakistan’s strategic circles. Realising this Iran claimed that other regional countries could also join Chabahar project and even showed willingness to be part of CPEC.

India is well aware that there is no comparison between Gwadar and Chabahar. CPEC is well over $57 Billion worth now and is a pilot project of China’s ambitious “One Belt One Road” Initiative. CPEC is a geostrategic pivot for future Pan-Eurasian economic integration. The handling capacity of Gwadar as a deep-sea port is many times greater than that of Chabahar. Indian presence in Chabahar poses a threat to Pakistan’s national security as is evident from the arrest of Kulbushan Jadhav and Uzair Baluch, both of whom used Chabahar as a staging base for their subversive operations.

Involvement of Foreign funded proxies and Subversive elements

The curious connection between Kulbushan Jadhav and Uzair Baluch

In March 2016, Pakistan arrested a senior Indian Intelligence officer, Kulbushan Jadhav, who was heading a network of insurgents and spies in the region with an aim to sabotage CPEC project. Jadhav was using Chabahar as a base for his operations and was arrested while crossing into Pakistan from Iran. Kulbushan Jadhav’s interrogation led to a number of critical arrests. Jadhav’s Chabahar network was used to fund, support and provide targets to Baluch separatist and sectarian groups in Baluchistan. This Chabahar network was also used to fund subversive activities in Karachi.

Interestingly another politically affiliated figure known as Uzair Baluch was arrested by Pakistan. Uzair Baluch was a notorious gangster with tremendous political clout in Karachi. According to his confession made public, Uzair fled to Chabahar in 2013 to escape the ongoing Rangers operation in Karachi. Uzair accepted that he was in touch with Iranian intelligence officials and with Kulbushan Jadhav. Uzair Baluch also revealed that he was also in touch with some Baluch separatist elements. Let’s breakdown what Uzair Baluch revealed in his interrogation, which was made public by Pakistani authorities.

  • Uzair Baluch escaped to Chabahar in 2013, where he met Haji Nasir (an Iranian Intelligence agent) who was dual national of Pakistan and Iran and arranged a meeting between Uzair Baluch and Iranian intelligence officials. Interestingly, 2013 is the same year in which Kulbushan also went to Chabahar and set up a business there to cover his subversive activities.
  • Iranian Intelligence asked details of senior Pakistan’s security and military officials in Karachi from Uzair Baluch. Uzair provided those details to Iranians.
  • Uzair Baluch and Kulbushan Yadav, both were in Chabahar in 2013. Uzair Baluch was in touch with both Iranian Intelligence officials and Indian Intelligence officer Kulbushan Yadav. It would be naïve to imagine that Iranians would be unaware of Jadhav’s subversive network in Chabahar, which targeted innocent civilians in Pakistan.

Due to strategic compulsions, Pakistan’s security agencies will never reveal the details of interrogation vis a vis the curious nexus between Iranians, Uzair Baluch and Kulbushan Jadhav. Iranian embassy had reacted strongly and denied any links with Uzair Baluch, when Pakistan made part of Uzair’s interrogation public.

Jundallah and Jaish-ul-Adl

Iran claims that some sub state actors operate from Pakistan’s Baluchistan province conduct cross border attacks on Iranian border guards. Eight Iranian border guards were killed few days ago close to Pak-Iran border, who according to Iran, came from Pakistan. Due to turmoil in Afghanistan, many subversive sub state actors threaten security of both Iran and Pakistan. India has used such sub state actors (militant groups) to spoil Pak-Iran relations in the past. In fact, Kulbushan Jadhav, even admitted that he planned to use BLA/BRA proxies to conduct terrorist attack on Pakistani embassy in Tehran to spoil Pak-Iran relations.

It is not only India, but a lot of other countries, who have antagonistic relations with Iran seek to exploit these groups. In 2012, Foreign Policy magazine published a story detailing how Israeli Intelligence officials under the guise of being CIA officers funded and provided weapons to Jundallah militants for subversion in Iran.

Pakistan in the past has helped Iran neutralize the threat from Jundallah. There are many versions of arrest of Abdul Malek Rigi, the head of Jundallah. Iranians claim that his flight, when passing over Iran, was forcibly made to land and he was arrested and later hanged. A US intelligence officer claimed, Abdulmalek was arrested by Pakistan and handed over to Iran. Later in 2015, after his execution, Abdul Malek Rigi’s brother Abdul Sattar Rigi was also arrested by Pakistan and handed over to Iran. Pakistan, at the time, also demanded Iran to hand over some Baluch ethno terrorist elements hiding in Sistan-Baluchistan.

Observing recent events, it looks like Iranian security establishment has a misperception that Pakistan has given space to anti-Iran proxies of US and Israel. Thus, in retaliation, they give space in Sistan-Baluchistan to Indian proxies for subversion in Pakistan. Security establishments of both countries need to sit together and remove these unnecessary misperceptions they have about each other.

Afghan Conundrum and the rise of ISIS-Khorasan

In the past, Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan diverged significantly from those of Iran. Pakistan was backing Afghan Taliban while Iran supported Northern Alliance. However, as ISIS-K started to make inroads into Afghanistan, a lot of disgruntled Afghan Taliban cadres jumped on to its bandwagon especially after the news about the death of Mullah Omar was made public. ISIS-K got strengthened, when TTP and Uzbek IMU elements who escaped Pak Army military operations in FATA escaped to Afghanistan and gave allegiance to ISIS-K. By 2016, according to a US military commander, most of the fighters of ISIS-K were former TTP. In fact, TTP, JuA and ISIS-K have a tactical alliance in Nangarhar and provide each other breathing space there. This was the reason Pakistan welcomed the US MOAB strike on ISIS-K compound in Nangarhar, since ISIS Khorasan comprise of mostly anti-Pakistan TTP and Uzbek IMU militants. Pakistan had also targeted JuA positions in ISIS infested Nangarhar province of Afghanistan with artillery strikes. The ascendancy of ISIS in Afghanistan has caused a lot of concern in regional capitals.

Recent reports indicate that Russia and Iran have increased their direct support to Afghan Taliban as they see Afghan Taliban as an effective bulwark against ISIS-K. Russia’s special envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov, referred to Afghan Taliban as a “National Force” who were justified in opposing the foreign military presence. General John Nicholson had accused Pakistan, Russia and Iran of supporting the Afghan Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.

Pakistan and Iran look at Afghan Taliban as an important sub state actor which controls almost 40% of Afghanistan. Such a sub state actor, which has a significant geopolitical value, is by all means a belligerent in Afghan conflict under International Law, rather than a mere terrorist group. Afghan Taliban are a political reality of Afghanistan, there importance can’t be underscored. Peace can only come if they are included in negotiation process. Hence, there is a significant convergence between both Iran and Pakistan when it comes to Afghan quagmire.

Pakistan’s delicate diplomatic balancing between Saudi Arabia and Iran

In 2015, Pakistan turned down the GCC request to send Pakistani troops for Yemen war. Pakistan did not want to get embroiled in sectarian wars of Middle East. Pakistan’s diplomacy has become multifaceted recently. With the appointment of General Raheel Sharif, Pakistan would now have unprecedented strategic influence over the Gulf countries. Wall Street Journal even reported that 5000 Pakistani troops might be deployed in Saudi Arabia in near future. However, Pakistani government hasn’t officially confirmed this news yet.

At the same time Pakistan is engaging Iran through ECO platforms and joint naval exercises. The recent visit by Pakistan’s parliamentary delegation to Tehran was vital. Pakistan even offered training to Iranian cadets in its military institutions. The main aim of Pakistan’s “deft diplomacy” is to deny any strategic breathing space to India in either Iran or the Gulf countries. Pakistan needs to continue to increase its defence relationship with Saudi Arabia through IMAFT platform and maintain a working relationship with Iran to ultimately increase regional economic and security cooperation with Iran as well. Only through a proactive “astute diplomacy” will Pakistan be able to neutralize Indian strategic intrusiveness in the Gulf region.

The Way Forward

As the saying goes, you can change your friends but you can’t change your neighbors. Pakistan and Iran need to have a viable working relationship. The defence establishments of both countries need to sit together and clear the misperceptions they have about each other. Iran should ensure, that Indian proxies would be not be given strategic space on its soil. Pakistan must also convey its concerns to Iran about Zainebiyoun militia, which includes Pakistani nationals fighting for Assad regime in Syria. Pakistan should also bolster its regional counter intelligence network to neutralize the designs of hostile subversive sub state actors in the region. Only through robust diplomacy and open channels of communications, can a working relationship between the two neighbors can be maintained. In the present scenario, neither Iran nor Pakistan can afford another enemy.

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Also published on Medium.