Is Iran a threat to Pakistan?

Rapprochement between Iran and Pakistan in trade and Afghanistan policy

The latest border openings and trade facilitations are intended to signal a spirit of optimism between Pakistan and Iran. Relations between the two neighboring Islamic countries had cooled noticeably in recent years: On the one hand, because of terrorist attacks on military personnel in both countries by extremists or separatists who operate on both sides of the shared border. On the other hand, because of Pakistan's support for Iran's rival Saudi Arabia for regional supremacy, especially in the Yemen war.

In 2015, Pakistan's parliament refused the riad's request for military equipment. One wanted to remain neutral in the Yemen conflict. Prime Minister Imran Khan immediately hastened to assure the important donor Saudi Arabia of the unlimited solidarity of Pakistan, a nuclear power, that they would stand by its side in the event of an attack on the kingdom. In 2017, the former Pakistani army chief Raheel Sharif was appointed as the commander of a multinational anti-terrorist alliance initiated by the Saudis, whose thrust was clearly directed against Iran's allies in Yemen.

Briefing of the situation with the military and politicians on the Pakistani side of the border

"Historical upswing in bilateral relations"

Now both sides want to strengthen cross-border trade and use it as a means to improve bilateral relations as a whole. The hope is that the economic upswing will improve the situation of the people in the troubled region of Balochistan, which encompasses both sides of the 900-kilometer border and is one of the poorest regions in both countries.

Much has been done to develop relations with "our friend and neighbor Pakistan", said the Iranian Minister of Transport and Urban Development Mohammad Islami last Wednesday on the occasion of the recent opening of a third border crossing and goods transshipment point. Together with the Pakistani Minister for Procurement of the Armed Forces, Zubaida Jalal, he opened the Pishin-Mand border crossing that has just been completed.

"This will completely change the level and nature of trade and commuting between the two countries," said Islami. "Relations between the two neighboring countries are currently experiencing a historic upswing and the opening of two border crossings within just under six months is an important milestone," the Pakistani newspaper "Express Tribune" quoted the minister as saying.

In December, the Rimdan - Gabd border crossing was opened, which is on the land connection between the two port and industrial zones of Gwadar on the Pakistani side and Tschabahar on the Iranian side. Another six border crossings to facilitate the exchange of goods are planned. According to the Pakistani newspaper "Dawn", the bilateral trade volume is currently only around 360 million US dollars.

Instead of smuggling gasoline, the export of citrus fruits to Iran will soon flourish

Unsafe border

Around 5.6 million Sunni Baluch settle on both sides of the border. Again and again radical nationalists among them carry out attacks on the military and institutions of both states. In addition, Sunni extremists have withdrawn into the region, who are also repeatedly attacking the security forces of the two states. There is also the danger of armed smugglers' gangs who are active in the region.

When six Pakistani soldiers were killed in an attack in May of last year, the Pakistani army chief Qamar Bajwa blamed militias active in Iran. Conversely, Iran accuses Pakistan of allowing extremist groups in the region. "The (Pakistani) security authorities hold their protective hand over them," said the then commander of the Revolutionary Guards, Mohammad Ali Jafari, on the occasion of a car bomb attack on Iranian troops that left 27 dead.

The most recent bomb attack on a luxury hotel in Quetta just a few hours after the opening of the border crossing in the same region, presumably by the Pakistani Taliban, has once again highlighted the unstable situation in the Balochistan region.

Iran's Foreign Minister Sarif receives a Taliban delegation in Tehran in January 2021

Common worries about chaos in Afghanistan

The increased efforts of Tehran and Islamabad to pacify the situation there are running parallel to the coordination between the two countries with a view to the developments in their mutual neighbor Afghanistan.

"Iran and Pakistan, Afghanistan's two most important direct neighbors, should intensify their cooperation and coordination in the interests of the peace process in the country," said President Rouhani during talks with Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, whose visit coincided with the recent opening of the border.

Both states are committed to rapprochement between the Taliban and the government in Kabul. The unconditional withdrawal of US troops that has now been decided leaves Afghanistan with an uncertain future. Neither Iran nor Pakistan wanted terrorism to spread again in Afghanistan, said Foreign Minister Qureshi during his visit to Tehran. He feared that if the intra-Afghan talks came to a standstill, Afghanistan could slide into civil war and lead to a mass exodus of Afghans.

Iran's Foreign Minister Sarif expressed the same concerns in mid-April at the India-hosted "Raisina Dialogue" forum: "We all have a common interest, share a common threat to Afghanistan. We all need a stable and peaceful Afghanistan. An Afghanistan, in allowing terrorists to operate freely is a threat to Iran, India, Pakistan, China, Central Asia, Russia and a threat to the world. "

Adjacent ports of Iran and Pakistan with strategic importance

Economic opportunities for Afghanistan - and Iran

Sarif suggested creating a region of prosperity from which Afghanistan would also benefit. That is why other countries such as China and Pakistan should also be included in the Tschabahar port project, which is operated jointly with India. According to an agreement concluded between India and Iran in 2016, the port of Tschabahar was to become the end point of a so-called "International Transport and Transit Corridor" that connects Central Asia with the Arabian Sea, bypassing Pakistan.

India is envisaged as the main investor in a designated 630-kilometer railway line. It is no coincidence that the name is reminiscent of the "Chinese-Pakistani Economic Corridor" (CPEC), which, in contrast to the Iranian-Indian project, is already well advanced. If Tehran now proposes opening the project to China, that is in line with Iran's growing economic and foreign policy orientation towards China. Tehran supports rapprochement with Pakistan not least by condemning Indian politics in Kashmir, which has been under the direct administration of New Delhi since 2019. Ali Khamenei was the only prominent leader of the Islamic world to criticize India's step, for which the Pakistani foreign minister expressly thanked him again during his recent visit.