Iran’s presidential election: implications for neighbours?

Imtiaz Gul June 22, 2024
The writer heads the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad and is the author of ‘Pakistan: Pivot of Hizbut Tahrir’s Global Caliphate’


Ahead of the June 28 presidential elections, several questions are agitating minds at home and abroad, particularly in the immediate neighbourhood of Iran: has the tragic death of President Ebrahim Raisi in a copter crash plunged the country into political uncertainty and created a potential power vacuum? Is it a contest among candidates in favour of a softer approach towards the US-led West and staunch anti-US nationalists? What is the likelihood of a pro-West candidate winning the presidential race thereby potentially disrupting bridges that Raisi tried to build with China and Pakistan? How does the handing over of operational control of one of Chabahar Port’s two terminals to India impact Tehran’s relations with Islamabad? Isn’t it a move to outmanoeuvre China and Pakistan’s joint venture i.e. Gwadar Port under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor? Will Iran demand penalty for Pakistan’s default on the gas pipeline project signed in 2010? Lastly, will a change on top threaten the development of the North-South Transport Corridor, a crucial trade route that connects India, Iran and Russia through Central Asia. This corridor significantly cuts transportation costs and time for all stakeholders, and could be immensely beneficial for Pakistan’s trade Central Asia and Russia.

Dr Reza Amiri Moghadam, Iran’s ambassador to Pakistan, offered responses to some of these questions during a recent interview I had with him.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran draws its strength from institutions such as the High Council of National Security, Expediency Council, Guardian Council, and a constitution. They all work under the guidance of the Supreme Leader. This rules out any compromise on the fundamental policy principles. Individuals therefore don’t matter in the system,” was the implied reference to the martyrdom of President Raisi.

The ambassador insists that over four decades of Western efforts to weaken Iran have failed. The nation is united in its resolve to resist Western imperialism and hence little chance of any individual subverting that national resolve.

As for the gas pipeline project, the ambassador remains hopeful that just one project will not bring Iran and Pakistan face to face in an arbitration court. We hope to find a solution to that.

And what about the Indian control of Chabahar port’s Shahid Beheshti terminal leased out to India for development and operations for 10 years?

“As a crucial junction for the north-south and east-west trade corridors, Chabahar potentially can boost trade across the region, giving both Iran and Pakistan the opportunity for joint investments via this port. Chabahar can act as an adjunct to Gwadar and also connect it to Iran’s national rail network for Pakistani exports to Turkey, Central Asia Russia, and the Caucasus region efficiently.”

Chabahar should not be a cause for concern either for China or Pakistan. The cooperation with India is not at the cost of relations with these two countries, the ambassador underscores.

As an astute diplomat, Dr Moghadam strikes a cautious note on security landscape of Pakistan. Attacks on Chinese engineers and in areas around Gwadar ostensibly aim to disrupt Pakistan’s integration into global trade networks. The Chabahar Port represents the best alternative, he says, insisting that this does not mean side-stepping the Gwadar Port.

“Both Pakistani and Chinese investors, as well as Afghanistan with its limited resources, have invested in Chabahar’s free trade zone. The collaboration between these ports is essential for cost-effective transportation,” he maintains.

Self-interest apart, Tehran’s strategy to market the Chabahar Port and hand over one entire terminal to India marks considerable preemptive planning for potential benefits. Despite possible Chinese reservations and US sanctions threat, both India and Iran went for the deal on Shahid Beheshti terminal at Chabahar. This move could potentially bypass Pakistan and turn Chabahar into a new junction for the Middle East, South and Central Asia, This is particularly crucial given the volatile security situation and political instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Iran is projecting Chabahar essentially as a stable and secure route for trade across the region, probably eyeing approximately $15 billion annually in transit and service fees from Central Asian states.

Lastly, the Iranians are also very categorical and vocal on the scourge of terrorism.

The US and Western countries have created this chaos to gain a foothold in the region. There is a history of terrorist elements in Afghanistan fighting against Pakistan, Iran, China, Russia and Central Asian countries. The Afghan Taliban should learn from their past mistakes and work to control the country. They need to cooperate with regional countries to boost trade, cultural exchange and counterterrorism.

Unlike Iran’s pragmatic but aggressive approach on foreign policy, Pakistan lags behind due to multiple reasons. Political instability, proximity to both the US and Saudi Arabia, absence of strategic vision on relations with immediate neighbours, short-sighted decisions and knee-jerk decisions on the Afghan transit and bilateral trade, and poor performance around the Gwadar Port — to the dismay of China — have all combined to deny Pakistan any dividend off its close relations with China and Afghanistan on the one hand and with the US and Saudi Arabia on the other.

Internal instability and economic crisis, coupled and a missing eye for strategic planning, continue to cloud Pakistan’s attempt to navigate the complicated regional landscape. Unless fear and confusion give way to bold, innovative policies anchored in political pragmatism and economics — not driven by security considerations only — Pakistan’s downhill journey is likely to continue. In other words, the country will muddle along without significant strides on political or economic front.


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