On Pakistan and Iran relations

Published: September 20, 2012

The writer is a law graduate from the London School of Economics and tweets @AsadRahim

It cannot be easy being Bashar al-Assad. Syria’s president has lost his brother-in-law, and some would say, his sanity to the civil war raging across the country. Yet, he continues butchering his people. Syria’s been ‘booted out’ of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), one of the many little wrist-slaps the regime has somehow survived. But at the OIC’s last emergency meeting, Assad found sympathy from unlikely quarters.

President Asif Ali Zardari urged “a policy of non-interference” in Syria, then repeated himself in Tehran. In the routine outrage that followed though, commentators felt less strongly about Pakistan supporting the blood-splattered Assad than what several felt was a sop to Iran, Syria’s insurance in the Middle East. Whatever Pakistan’s motives, Iran is one of Pakistan’s most pressing cross-border headaches — even if no one likes talking about it.

The careers of the fellow Islamic Republics have been diverging for a while. And whereas Pakistan’s foreign policy agenda is defined hazily at best, Iran is not nearly as conflicted about the role it seeks for itself in the world. It patronises Hamas, the Palestinian party running the Gaza Strip. It throws its weight around in Iraq, the prime minister of which took refuge in Tehran during the Saddam years. And it extends a veritable lifeline to Hezbollah, now a force to be reckoned with in Lebanon.

Granted, Persian Empire 2.0 it is not, nor does Pakistan concern itself much with these states anyway (by itself a policy failure). But in places that Pakistan has bothered to create a stake for itself, like Afghanistan and post-uprising Bahrain, it quickly becomes evident that not only are the ‘brother countries’ on opposite sides, their proxies are also pitted directly against the other’s.

That is not to say there is no potential for improvement. Pakistan and Iran are bound by historic, linguistic and cultural ties. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s fondness for cheap grandstanding commands a bizarre respect from the Pakistani street. Both sides remain committed to building the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, despite several stupid attempts at persuading Pakistan otherwise. But between Hezbollah, Assad’s Alawis, and the Shia-majority states of Bahrain and Iraq, most of Iran’s associates gel well with Tehran’s regional ambitions. By comparison, Pakistan’s credentials are not that good: armed with nuclear warheads, longstanding ties with Iran’s Arab archrivals and a series of ad hocisms in place of a foreign policy.

This bleeds into what was always a confused relationship. In 2005, Iran’s nuclear chief coincidentally let slip that “pieces of centrifuges” were received from Pakistan. Pakistan has accused Iran of arming militant Shia groups operating in the country. And unlike the old days when the Shah would ply the original PPP regime with Cobra gunships — for mowing down Baloch tribesmen — today’s Iran blames Pakistan for ignoring Sunni outfits like Jundullah in Balochistan.

Yes, everyone knows that Pakistani policy requires coherence. But Iran’s officialdom needs to grow up. Ever since the revolution, Iranian diplomacy has reduced its range to vary from petulance to hostile petulance. Unfortunately, proximity to Pakistan is not akin to either Israeli anger or American sanctions; it cannot be manoeuvred around or weathered through. A better relationship can only serve Iran. Just as a worse one would be disastrous for Pakistan. Organised segments at home despise Iran, are fearful of its ‘malign influence’ in the country and continue calling for Pakistan to act like a majoritarian state in the same way Iran is a doctrinaire one. And this happens at a time when the state is failing miserably to protect the lives of its Shia citizens.

Pakistan is neither Arab nor Persian. As it is neither, its citizens must reject those peddling narratives that seek to spread hatred in people’s hearts and murder by their identification cards.

Regardless, Iran and Pakistan are finding themselves in an increasingly dark place on the world stage. The ayatollahs marched there with conviction, our civilians and generals out of indifference. Coming closer via the pipeline — and long-term policy planning by Pakistan — may bring both nearer to the light.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 20th, 2012.

Reader Comments (35)

  • Khalid
    Sep 20, 2012 - 8:09AM

    good analysis

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  • Hassan
    Sep 20, 2012 - 10:15AM

    Nice article. I am a Pakistani and living in Iran for the last two years. Although there is a significant difference between Pakistan and Iran in terms of culture, political affiliation and views, literacy and history. Iranians of today are very proud of their forefathers great Persain empire. Pakistanis on other hand have nothing to claim from their joint Indo-Pak hsitroy of last 5,000 years, including the Mughals who were product of central asian origin. However the main difference i see between Iran, Turkey and Pakistan is simply nationalism. Both Iran and Turkey are nations. Despite these countries divergent views on poltics, liberalism, conservatism they will protect their country in front of others. Through out Turkey and Iran you will see only one flag and alot of pride in who they are, their past achievements, their nationalhood, culture etc. Pakistan is a totally different story where 4-5 main ethnicity are vastly different and people want to be known as their ethnic background than being pakistanis. You see flags of different political parties, separatist movements, different religious affiliation etc etc every where. Hence this also defines what does on top. Our leadership becomes totally delusional and keeps changing its priorities and its masters.What a pity

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  • Sep 20, 2012 - 10:34AM

    Iran, a country without nukes, unlike Pakistan, usually projects more power than Pakistan.

    India is in a tricky, yet advantageous place. The thing going for India is its not bordering Iran and Iran hates the Taliban as much as India does.

    Iran let India build a port, to help Afghanistan lean itself off of Pakistan. India uses it graciously to get into Afghanistan.

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  • TT
    Sep 20, 2012 - 11:02AM

    Pakistan has to reach out to its neighbours. But it doesn’t seem like it will gain that sense soon.Recommend

  • Druze
    Sep 20, 2012 - 11:08AM

    Asad, we can only get out of this circle when we realize how different Iran’s goals are from Pakistan’s. You suggest we recognize that, but you also say that as a neighbour there’s no moving away from each other. Do you feel our policymakers that you criticize have the ability to walk such a fine balance?Recommend

  • Hatim
    Sep 20, 2012 - 11:19AM

    At this point, Iran is a perfect example of what the abyss looks like for Pakistan. There’s a lot more falling down to do. Iran may be getting rounded on by the US and Israel, but if it hadn’t invested so dearly in Hizbullah and Assad as the author rightly pointed out, it would have no one. Pakistan’s pipeline benefits Pakistan and should be pursued. But it should take Iran’s example in making friends that are stable, healthy democracies ie not Afghanistan. Or even Iran. Though he’s masking his words, the author is clearly saying as much.

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  • fahd
    Sep 20, 2012 - 11:43AM

    This is the best piece on Iranian-Pak relations in a long while. Author is right to talk of how hazy Pak projection has been in contrast to Iran’s widening sphere of influence. And the fact is that Iran’s ‘proxies’, which is what the West calls them, do not help Pak’s type. In Afghanistan this is most noticeable. Iran backs Isaf and Nato whereas Pakistan supports Talibs. But getting around this can be done, and Pakistan is inching toward it too.Recommend

  • Imran
    Sep 20, 2012 - 12:07PM

    Analysis need more insight about irani fear of strong ties with Arab monarchy like Saudi Arabia, Quatar, UAE and Behrain royal family strong allies of USA in the region protecting US 5th feelt and funding of Pakistani militant by above arab countries who are against irani shia islam and contine killing innocent muslim accros the pakistan and thier likly minded terroirst group Al-quaida creating disturbing in Irqa and syria.

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  • Ali
    Sep 20, 2012 - 12:40PM

    A typical naive analysis by a student groomed in the high castles of western studies!

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  • Khalid
    Sep 20, 2012 - 12:47PM

    Like with Russia, Asad Rahim is fond of suggesting better relations with countries he clearly dislikes.

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  • virat
    Sep 20, 2012 - 2:28PM

    so….US-Pakistan < US-India
    Russia-Pakistan has always been < Russia-India
    and now! Iran-Pakistan < Iran-India
    Wonderful. Hope Saudi can keep you guys fed. But it looks more interested in other places.Recommend

  • Naresh
    Sep 20, 2012 - 2:52PM

    @BruteForce:
    .
    You stated Iran let India build a port, to help Afghanistan lean itself off of Pakistan. India uses it graciously to get into Afghanistan.
    .
    The Port of Chah Bahar came into use in the early 1980s so that Ships carrying cargoes for Iran could discharge their cargoes out side the “War Zone” which involved heavy “War Risks Insurance Premium”.
    .
    An Indian Consortium – I believe L&T and Hindujas – has been appointed for upgrading the Port. I am not sure if the “Upgrading” has commenced but, yes, India must be using smaller ships to carry Afghanistan bound Cargoes to Chah Bahar.
    .
    Cheers

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  • FB
    Sep 20, 2012 - 3:04PM

    Pakistan and Iran should get together just to stick it to everyoneRecommend

  • Raza Khan
    Sep 20, 2012 - 3:18PM

    Both countries are in deep mess for their own actions!Recommend

  • SK
    Sep 20, 2012 - 3:28PM

    Very articulate analysis.

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  • Sheikh Salman
    Sep 20, 2012 - 3:31PM

    @Ali:
    Quite right bro..

    Actually every one seems to portray Muslim rulers and Muslims around the world more cruel than the Civilized Westerners .. Mr. Asad talk about Bashaar ul Asad killing his own people.. Yes they kills thousands of innocent civilians and its not justify.. Similarly Western Media create so much hype with the likes of Saddam, Qadahfi and Others. Can any of them raises voice against the Butchering of Thousands of People who killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.. and Middle East as you see them now.. In Burma.??? Suki got gold medal for Democracy… it is a hypocrisy.. In Pakistan if a minority person killed All the Westernized Media is hue and cry that minorities are not safe in Pakistan. In Karachi almost daily more than 10 people die are they all minorities???

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  • fahd
    Sep 20, 2012 - 3:48PM

    ET stop removing my comments. I wrote at the beginning: This is the best piece on Iranian-Pak relations in a long while. Author is right to talk of how hazy Pak projection has been in contrast to Iran’s widening sphere of influence. And the fact is that Iran’s ‘proxies’, which is what the West calls them, do not help Pak’s type. In Afghanistan this is most noticeable. Iran backs Isaf and Nato whereas Pakistan supports Talibs.

    Recommend

  • Kanwal
    Sep 20, 2012 - 4:11PM

    “Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s fondness for cheap grandstanding”? I thought you were writing for ET, not NYT dear author.

    “Pakistan is neither Arab nor Persian”.. Thats true. We are a country which has a significant number of minority muslim sects, most notably, a very high proportion of Shias. On the other hand, Iran has a very tiny fraction of sunni mulims and other religions and sects. And since we are different, and since neighbours are always natural allies, we should pay more attention to improving relationships with Iran. Just like India is doing too. Besides, the violent sectarian strife in the land of the pure was carved using money poured into a “jihad” which damaged our society so completely we have lost our face. To get back to our identity, we need our neighbours and strong relations with them. We dont want any more foreign intrusion in this part of the world. Its in everybody’s interests, including Iran, Pakistan, India and of course Afghanistan.

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  • Khalid
    Sep 20, 2012 - 4:20PM

    And keep it up!

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  • khuzdar Khan
    Sep 20, 2012 - 5:05PM

    Yeah that’s right on the money Ali……naive and childish…..typical of someone on CNN supporting the ‘Arab Spring’
    There is no comparison between Iran and Pakistan.
    Having been to Iran and seen the people/ country , it is a civilized and ancient nation. We are not! There is rule of Law……Pakistan has none!
    Talking about money, Iran is self sufficient in pretty much everything, because of massive oil and gas reserves. It is rapidly headed toward an ascendant strategic position in the region. Now the Ayatollah’s also control Iraq which has the second largest oil reserves on earth.
    Assad wont fall either because Iran, Russia and China won’t allow another primitive Saudi Wahabbi Al CIAda puppet state which would become a satrap like Saudi Arabia is for the U.S.
    No matter what the western imperialists try in destabilizing Muslim countries, Iran is there to thwart those ambitions in the region.
    May be this writer should look at the issue from a point of view of putting Pakistan’s interests and security first. We have had enough headaches from looking after Western interests in our region, neglecting our own peoples well being. Our country is headed for the garbage bin of history because of this. Recommend

  • Kumail
    Sep 20, 2012 - 5:13PM

    A strong Pakistan and Iran is vital for the Islamic world, almost pivitol. Commenting on relations Saudi Arabia will always be a thorn between these two great nations, improved relations will benefit both economically, technologically and even socially. However Uncle Sam will always have an eye on us, even when were playing with the kid next door;)

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  • Alam
    Sep 20, 2012 - 5:50PM

    @Ali:
    spot on

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  • H. Ducard
    Sep 20, 2012 - 6:38PM

    Articles like these make it easy to follow along on complicated foreign policy. Even to a layman this seems like the way to go. Still, I know the Western world at large would feel tremendously uneasy seeing an Iran + Pakistan tag team. Plus, Iran seems to need stability first before it can concentrate on the more advanced aspects of being a nation: who your allies are. Whether it implodes or not only time will tell. It doesn’t seem like any fruitful alliance is going to be born any time soon though.

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  • Amna
    Sep 20, 2012 - 7:19PM

    A well written article. Pakistan needs a paradigm shift in its foreign policy, where Pakistani interests should be protected and not personal friendships.

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  • Naz
    Sep 20, 2012 - 7:22PM

    Iran does not trade its friends for shortchange the way Pakistan does.Recommend

  • LC
    Sep 20, 2012 - 7:36PM

    If this is what a student from ‘the high castles of western studies’ can write, then I certainly wish to be one. A sound and very articulate analysis of a difficult subject.

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  • ahmed41
    Sep 20, 2012 - 7:41PM

    Look ~~~~ is IRAN a neighbour ? Is it a regional player of importance. ?
    Are their historical and cultural links between the neighbours ? Do they need mutual economic cooperation ?

    IF YES , then ties are vital as a foreign policy target.

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  • F
    Sep 20, 2012 - 7:56PM

    In addition to what the author states, Iran is on the path to achieving nuclear weapons. Pakistan provided critical technology. Now it has nuclear neighbors on both flanks! But this does not concern Pakistan. Why? Because a “Muslim” nation is seen standing up to Jews and Americans! This is what passes off as “strategic” thought.

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  • M Baloch
    Sep 20, 2012 - 9:02PM

    An article about Iran starts with Syria then discusses how Shia militants supported by Iran are killing Sunnis, tells us why Bahrain & Lebnan are threat for Pakistan and finally AHmadiNejad gets praise from Pakistanis for his nonsense statements. A rubbish article, I don’t know the author has any other motive or “Khan” in his name may tell why he is in love with exemplary democracy of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. I wasted my 10 minutes reading this crap;

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  • lisa
    Sep 20, 2012 - 11:35PM

    Blockquote As it is neither, its citizens must reject those peddling narratives that seek to spread hatred in people’s hearts and murder by their identification cards.

    Spot on.

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  • SKATZ
    Sep 21, 2012 - 12:44AM

    Great Article… unfortunately with a certain segment in Pakistan defence of the Iranian state seems more an article of faith than a realistic analysis of where things are heading in that country. Great to see someone writing something factual about a rather uneasy “on again – off again” relationship between the two neighbors.

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  • asim
    Sep 21, 2012 - 11:08AM

    This is really a piece of crap and agenda driven.Our problem is that we have such inteelectuals and opinion makers.

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  • RG
    Sep 21, 2012 - 3:21PM

    Who’s afraid of big bad Iran? Surely not Pakistan, with its riotiing populace and nuclear arsenal.Recommend

  • Sep 22, 2012 - 9:54AM

    There is a mix up of issues here.We should look up to Iran as an strategic asset to forge closer relations with Russia and central Asian states.Most of the routes/roads to these countries go through Iran and not through Afghanistan which has been more of a headache.

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  • Sep 24, 2012 - 2:55AM

    @Hassan Do you really live in Iran? Going around claiming Pakistan is a country of 5 ethnicities while pretending Iran as some mono-ethnic state. Iran also has various ethnic groups including 30% Azeri, not just one ethnic group. What joint “indo-Pak” history are you talking about? Much of the history in the Indus Valley region has nothing to do with India. You seem like another confused Pakistani (assuming you are not muhajir) about his history and identity.

    The author has written a fairly positive article on the reality of Pakistan’s status amongst the middle eastern countries that most Pan-Islamist Pakistanis want to believe. Like it or not, iran and the Arab states are enemies of Pakistan. Both on government and people levels. The racism towards Pakistanis in the middle east is enormous. We only tolerate each other for stability and because we need each other to a degree.

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