A game changer in Tehran?

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Ram’s birth in Ayodhya: A view from sanctum sanctorum

By Syeda Mamoona Rubab

This week, Pakistan and Iran agreed to strengthen their border security regime to deal with a deadly mix of terrorist groups, religious militants, drug smugglers, human traffickers and criminals along their 950-kilometre long border the two countries share. These are the core irritants that have continued to fuel mistrust between the two neighbours.

This agreement, which primarily revolves around the setting up of a new Joint Rapid Reaction Force for tackling cross border movements and actions of terrorists and criminals, was reached during the maiden visit of Prime Minister Imran Khan to Iran. Another element of this increased border security cooperation was Pakistani acceptance to proscribe groups that engage in terrorism in Iran and could possibly be operating from Pakistani soil.

This much is publicly known about the understanding on security cooperation reached at the meeting between Prime Minister Imran Khan and President Hasan Rouhani. The talks were then followed by another session between the security agencies of the two countries in which they were represented by their respective intelligence chiefs. It should be recalled that this was the second meeting between the intelligence chiefs of Pakistan and Iran in less than a year, but definitely the first in a bilateral format, because the previous one in Islamabad involved Russian and Chinese spymasters as well.

Nevertheless, these are significant steps towards removing a permanent source of misunderstanding between the two countries. The new measures supplement the earlier regime comprising joint patrolling including heli-surveillance, border fencing, deployment of additional security forces, and creation of new administrative units of Frontier Corps by Pakistan. This border security regime has evolved over time and most of the measures were recently agreed. Major steps were previously taken during the visits of Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa to Iran in 2017 and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to Islamabad in May 2017 and October 2018 following attacks on Iranian border guards and their abduction.

The continuation of the incidents especially the recent most ones – the attack on Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps bus in February, 2018 and the killing of Pakistani security personnel travelling on Coastal Highway near Ormara in April this year, allegedly by Iran-based Baloch separatists, suggest that the existing regime was inadequate to prevent cross-border terrorism. In other words, something extraordinary was needed to address it.

Khan, who minced no words in stating that the purpose of his visit was for bridging the gulf between the two countries that was due to terrorism, made that much needed gesture. He conceded that militant groups that have set up sanctuaries on Pakistani side of the border carried out attacks in Iran in the past. What Khan said was a public admission of a problem known to everyone. It goes without saying that such an acknowledgement is a precondition for addressing complicated issues like cross-border militancy. Unfortunately, Opposition parties in Pakistan, used the statement, to settle their political scores with the government little realizing that the admission presented a new opportunity for dealing with a longstanding problem.

It should be recalled that ISPR has itself announced that Pakistani security forces helped rescue kidnapped Iranian border guards. The recovery of Iranians from Pakistani territory was proof that the terrorist groups had presence on Pakistani side of the border. It need to be remembered that 12 guards were kidnapped last October and so far 9 have been recovered, while three others remain in captivity of their abductors.

Reformist Iranian newspaper Ebtekar hailed the progress on border security including the setting up of the joint rapid force as “the biggest outcome” of Khan’s visit. Pakistan’s The Express Tribune was cautious in its comments on the outcome of the trip. In its editorial The Express Tribune stated: “This will result in better security infrastructure in place in Pakistan as well as more and better trained personnel through the Joint Rapid Reaction Force though thwarting terrorism is not a short-term task”.

Meanwhile, Dawn was categorical in welcoming the development. “Prime Minister Imran Khan’s statements on Monday at a joint press conference with President Hassan Rouhani during his first visit to Iran are significant for their clarity and forthrightness, even if he was savaged by members of the opposition yesterday for uttering them. In fact, his remarks have the potential to be a game-changer in a relationship that has seldom been little better than tepid.”

Besides security, there was little progress on the trade ties except for ritual reiterations that the two sides needed to expand their bilateral trade, which is presently at $1.3 billion. Progress in this direction has been made even more difficult due to intensifying US sanctions against Iran. US, it should be remembered, this week revoked the waivers it had earlier given to China, India and some other countries for buying Iranian oil. An indication by President Rouhani that Pakistan and Iran were discussing barter exchanges is potentially one way of working around the sanctions.

Visit to China

PM Khan would be travelling to China this week for attending the second Belt and Road Forum, which would discuss the future of Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and prospects of cooperation between BRI partners.

More significantly, the prime minister would, in his interactions with Chinese President Xi Jinping and other senior leaders, discuss the next phase of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is a bilateral Pak-China venture so far and is considered as a flagship project of BRI.

Major expected outcomes of PM Khan’s visit to China include a greater clarity on the next phase of CPEC, which involves stronger private sector involvement including the activation of Special Economic Zones, social sector cooperation, and the involvement of third country partners in CPEC. China, as per the desire of the new government in Pakistan, is committing $1 billion for social sector projects covering health, education, human resources development, poverty alleviation, agriculture, and water and irrigation. Additionally 20,000 scholarships would also be provided to Pakistani students over the next three years.

Pakistan and China are also expected to conclude the second stage Free Trade Agreement under which China would give more concessions to Pakistani products by further opening up its market. It is being done redress the massive imbalance in Pak-China trade and the anticipation is that the step would increase Pakistani exports by $500 million per annum.

The writer is a senior researcher at Islamabad Policy Institute. She can be reached at mamoona.rubab@ipipk.org 

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