As Prime Minister Modi makes his first visit to Iran, numerous factors are at play ranging from the timing of the visit, which is taking place after his visit to Saudi Arabia and before an expected visit to Israel, to discussions on expectations about how India would shape its relations with a post-sanctions Iran and issues of energy cooperation and connectivity. A question that intrigues some analysts, given the present geopolitical environment and the geo-strategic power play in Middle East and South Asia, is whether Pakistan is a factor in India-Iran relations.
Besides the geographical reality of Pakistan interposing itself between India and Iran and historical Iran-Pakistan relations, it is the complex interplay of more recent events such as (a) developments in Afghanistan (b) Iran-Saudi dynamics with its sectarian dimension (c) Pakistan’s efforts to balance its relations including refusal to be a part of the Arab intervention force in Yemen and a hesitant consent to be part of the Saudi-led anti-terrorism alliance; and (d) the Chinese interest in the region, which support the argument on the Pakistan factor in Iran-Pakistan relations. All of these seem to precipitate during the Iranian President Rouhani’s visit to Pakistan.
Rouhani’s visit in March this year was his first to Islamabad as the Iranian president, and was also the first by an Iranian head of state to Pakistan in 14 years. Pakistan saw itself as the first South-Asian country chosen by Rouhani for his post-sanctions visit and as the first destination in the Iranian new year. During his two-day stay in Pakistan, the Iranian president exchanged views with Pakistani officials on promotion of economic ties after the lifting of international sanctions against Tehran. A number of cabinet ministers as well as a 60-member group of Iranian businesspersons and representatives of private sector had accompanied the Iranian President.
Rouhani’s trip to Islamabad had been preceded by visits to Tehran by the Pakistani premier in May 2014 and in January this year to discuss ways to promote relations between the two neighbours. Pakistan had conveyed to the Iranian leadership that Iran was as important to Islamabad as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan will not become part of any grouping against Iran. Accordingly, Rouhani was to also confer with the Pakistani side on regional and international developments as well as the issue of unity among Muslims ahead of the summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which was scheduled to be held in Turkey in April.
On the first day of the visit, Pakistani Army chief General Raheel Sharif called on Rouhani and raised the issue of Research and Analysis Wing’s (RAW) – India’s external intelligence agency – involvement in Pakistan’s internal affairs especially in Balochistan. Two days earlier, Pakistani security forces had announced the arrest of an alleged RAW agent in Balochistan’s Chaman area. Even as Rouhani denied discussing the issue, the details of Gen Sharif’s discussion with Rouhani were uncharacteristically given out in a statement by the military’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR).
After the visit, the Pakistan government, in a letter written by the interior ministry addressed to Iranian ambassador Mehdi Honardoost in Islamabad, sought the Iranian government’s help to identify other agents of RAW operating in the region, Geo News channel reported. The letter also called on Iran to arrest and hand over another Indian spy identified only as “Rakesh alias Rizwan” and sought information about “details of RAW networks on Iranian soil and any other details related to it”.
A statement issued by the Iranian embassy in Islamabad on the issue said some elements were trying to spread “undignified” and “offensive” rumours to undermine Iran-Pakistan relations.
After the independence of Pakistan in August 1947, Iran had the unique distinction of being the first country to internationally recognise its sovereign status. Both countries are founding members of the Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO), members of Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) as well as D-8. Iran-Pakistan relations have been by and large stable, despite regional sectarian turmoil. More recently, Pakistani crackdown on anti-Shia groups within the country and its decision to not to join the Saudi-led Yemen war have had a positive effect on the relations despite the occasional spurts of tension on the Baluchistan border. The Iranian president’s visit was expected to open a new chapter in Iran-Pakistan relations.
It is not often seen in international relations and diplomacy that a visiting head of state at the very beginning of his visit is read the ‘riot act’ by the head of the military of the host nation (Gen Sharif); no matter what his standing in power structure within the country maybe. Further, just when the visitor is soft-pedalling the incident, the military puts out a press release detailing the interaction.
Iran is a proud country, and in Islamabad it chose pragmatism. Rouhani even went on to praise the anti-terrorism efforts of the Pakistani army. Gen Sharif, on the other hand, had clearly and visibly laid out a no-go area for Iran-Pakistan relations, and it was India.
The Pakistani interior ministry’s letter to the Iranian ambassador made three main points: one, it has been Pakistan’s persistent stand that India is a sponsor of terrorism, sabotage and subversion in Pakistan (Balochistan); two, Iranian soil was being used by India, therefore improvement in relations between Tehran and Islamabad was contingent to cooperation by Iran on the issue, and three, Pakistan had presented evidence on Indian involvement in Balochistan to the United Nations. The letter in effect appeared to (a) place the onus (equally) on Iran for reducing terrorism and bring peace to the region; (b) insinuates that Iran knowingly or otherwise is providing an operating base for Indian intelligence on Iranian soil;(c) India is destabilising the region to the detriment of Iran-Pakistan relations .
Just prior to his departure for Islamabad Rouhani had said, “it is the immediate need of the people of Pakistan and the subcontinent to have access to the rich oil and gas resources of Iran.” he went on to add,” This will be helpful in economic growth of both the countries, provide possibilities of reducing tension in the region and developing warm and sincere relations.” This was a clear indication that Iran was looking at Pakistan as a market for it hydrocarbons (by resuming exports) and as a transit route (pipeline) further into South Asia. However, Pakistan during the visit showed no inclination for either offers and in the process denied Iran some desperately needed revenue in the short terms. Pakistan instead is opting for Qatari gas and Saudi/UAE oil.
Pakistan, high on Chinese support and looking to balance out its rebuff of Saudi Arabia and the GCC on the Yemen war, has struck a ‘manufactured’ spoke of India’s covert activities into its relations with Iran, apparently asking it to choose between India and a Chinese-propped Pakistan.