Pakistan-Iran Relations: Challenges & Future Prospects

Federal Minister for Maritime Affairs Mr Ali Zaidi

Ambassador of Islamic Republic of Pakistan His Excellency Mr Mehdi Honardoost

Representatives of political parties, think tanks and academia and worthy guests

Asalam-o-Alaikum!

It gives me immense pleasure to welcome you on behalf of Islamabad Policy Institute.

IPI is privileged to host today’s roundtable discussion on ‘Pakistan-Iran Cooperation: Prospects and Challenges. We will be holding this discussion in the context of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Tehran last month.

In this regard, an appraisal of earlier cooperation, current challenges and the prospects for future cooperation, is imperative.

Iran-Pakistan relations had certain distinct features over the past seven decades. The two initially had a very cooperative relationship. Iran was the first country to extend recognition to Pakistan. We did not have contested borders. Both Iran and Pakistan were in the same camp during Cold War and became part of Central Treaty Organization (CENTO). Pakistan and Iran along with Turkey launched Regional Cooperation for Development in1964 to boost economic connectivity. Both hosted Afghan refugees and remained opposed to Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

A review of Pak-Iran bilateral relations also reveals policy divergences on regional security and strategic issues. We have witnessed these divergences in the shape of quest for influence in post-Soviet Afghanistan, in which both sides supported opposite factions; and the different trajectories of their relations with the world’s sole superpower and the Gulf countries. To put it straight the two countries find themselves in opposing global geopolitical camps.

Unfortunately, these divergences have come to dominate the complexion of their relations, which for most of the time have remained lukewarm.

A good measure of the health of the relationship would come from the economic disconnect between the two countries; lack of progress in Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline and the mutual terrorism concerns. The assessment criteria can be further narrowed down to security by leaving aside the economic, trade and energy cooperation because of what Islamabad says stringent US sanctions.

Ladies and Gentlemen!

The two countries call their border as border of peace. But, at the same time it is fact that the long, remote and sparsely populated border between the two countries has posed a number of problems for both sides. Over the years, both Pakistan and Iran have urged the other to do more to secure the border, curb smuggling and human trafficking, and crackdown on militants and terrorist groups operating along the border.

It is a matter of record that when it comes to concerns about external interference in Balochistan, Iranian authorities have always shown readiness to discuss it at the very highest level. That’s exactly what happened when Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi called Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to convey his apprehensions about Iranian soil being used for Ormara attack. To quote Mr Qureshi’s own words, Mr Zarif told him that Iran takes the incident as an attack on itself and would fully cooperate in tracking the alleged perpetrators. We are finally seeing similar candidness from Pakistan.

Border management should be an ongoing undertaking by both sides and communication channels should be kept open. There is simply no alternative to dialogue and diplomacy. In this regard the new arrangement for border security is welcome, although there are different descriptions on the two sides about how it would work. President Rouhani called it ‘a joint rapid reaction force’, whereas Pakistan Army describes it ‘bilateral coordination’ with nothing ‘joint’. Howsoever you describe it, the important thing is that it should work. Improved border security would remove lot of mutual mistrust and can be the stepping stone for enhanced economic and trade links.

Sanctions are a reality, but there are ways to find an alternate route. We have numerous examples around us. Those alternate ways need to be explored and developed. Right now little is being done in that direction. A bit of boldness and initiative is, therefore, required.

You will hear more on these issues from our learned speakers and the chair of today’s session. We all look forward to a fruitful and stimulating discussion ahead. We at IPI do sincerely hope that today’s event would contribute to an open and frank discussion on prospects of cooperation between the two neighbours on issues critical to their relationship.

I thank you all!

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