The Iranian connection

Published: October 30, 2011
The writer was foreign secretary from 1989-90 and is a former chairman of the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad

The writer was foreign secretary from 1989-90 and is a former chairman of the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad

Two recent newspaper reports, entitled respectively “Iran offers to provide 10,000 MW” and “Pakistan dithers on Iran gas pipeline plan”, both slightly inaccurate, focused on Pakistan-Iran relations, the first being excessively optimistic and the second, overly pessimistic. Both of them, however, impinge on a key component of future bilateral relations. What Iran has done, apart from the firm offer of 1,000 MW, is to share with Pakistan the information that it may have a surplus of 10,000 MW and this may billed on the initial offer depending upon various other factors. The most obvious factors are that Iran may never want to commit too heavy a part of its surplus to a neighbour with a somewhat unpredictable relationship and, equally importantly, Pakistan’s import of Iranian power depends upon its capacity to absorb it. It also needs investment in costly transmission lines needed to carry a heavy load. Insofar as they reaffirm Iran’s willingness to be a substantial partner in Pakistan’s quest for energy, both stories are of strategic value.

Dr Asim Hussain’s observation that a breakthrough in the pipeline project depends on an ‘understanding’ with the “ international community” probably reflects the impact of Hillary Clinton’s warning against it during her recent visit to Islamabad on a government that has so far been unduly susceptible to ‘international’ (read American) pressure in formulating Iran policy. That it cannot continue to be so vulnerable to this pressure is seen in the emerging ground realities: Pakistan has not even initiated projects for large-scale power production that can come on line in time to rescue its economy in the near future and the alternative Turkmenistan-Pakistan-India pipeline (TAPI) is by no means free of problems and may not materialise for a decade or more.

No less important is the consideration that energy cooperation with Iran may well be the cornerstone of the architecture of Pakistan’s future security; its true strategic depth visualised in economic terms. Iran may be ‘a dangerous country’ in the western perception but for Pakistan, it can only be a source of strength. China’s trade turnover with this ‘dangerous country’ exceeds $40 billion and India has invested heavily even in Afghanistan to boost its commerce with Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia. Pakistan desperately needs to rebalance its strategic relationships and Iran will inevitably figure in this effort. Considering the projection by the US department of energy that the global demand for energy would increase by 50 per cent by 2035 and considering the present worldwide scramble for early options on possible sources, officials of the Pakistan government do not serve Pakistan’s interests well by categorising the Iran pipeline (IPI) and the TAPI in either/or formulations. Both of them have great importance for Pakistan and, if extended to India, can be game-changers.

Pakistan-Iran relations have generally been close; the march of history itself demands that the problems that have strained them in the recent past are isolated and resolved. The principal source of problems has been the difference in perspectives on Afghanistan. With long common borders with that country, Pakistan and Iran have a legitimate interest in the outcome of the process that began with the American intervention in Afghanistan in 2001. This interest is qualitatively different from the era when the Taliban were engaged in military campaigns to establish their rule in the length and breadth of their internally contested land, a project robustly resisted by Iran through its support for the Northern Alliance.

In any future dispensation, Pakistan will not want the supremacy of the Taliban and, given Iran’s pragmatism, Iran should not seek the hegemony of non-Pashtun factions. In fact, neither country has any business interfering in Afghanistan’s internal affairs beyond extending assistance that Kabul may want in promoting reconciliation amongst Afghan factions, ethnic or ideological, and ensuring its own territorial integrity. Iran’s relations with India also need to be better understood in Pakistan as an outreach reducing the perennial siege it faces; Iran may even facilitate the opening of a new chapter in India-Pakistan relations. It is time that instead of dithering because of exaggerated fears of ‘international’ displeasure, Islamabad becomes more proactive in arriving at a new strategic understanding with Tehran.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 31st,  2011.

Facebook Conversations

Reader Comments (25)

  • Noor Nabi
    Oct 30, 2011 - 11:53PM

    This is an almost brilliant analysis. It would have been totally brilliant if the author had chosen not to walk on egg shells and had the courage to mention the name, as well as the role, of Saudi Arabia.

    Because the military-mullah axis in Pakistan, largely nurtured under the bigoted leadership of Zia-ul-Haq, is heavily infiltrated by the Salafists who owe allegiance to their funders – the Saudis – Iran has been relegated to an unimportant position by Pakistan. The Saudis, as the world knows, provide financial assistance to Pakistan through the Kingdom’s zakat fund; they openly refer to the Pakistanis as Maskeens, a term that also has pejorative connotations including that of being a beggar.

    There is an open cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Shia-Sunni rivalry – a match that dates back to the times immediately following the death of Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) – continues to play out. On the one hand Pakistan has sold its independence and self-respect to the Saudis and on the other it’s foreign policy is hamstrung by resulting constraints that prevent it from having a meaningful relationship with its immediate neighbour; Iran is a country that is backed by a rich history and civilization that has even influenced the works of poets as famous as Ghalib, Iqbal and Faiz.

    If Pakistan can get the Saudis off its back then it can begin to shape a policy of having good relations with all its immediate neighbours including Iran, India, China and Afghanistan. The Iranians are not popular with the west because they overthrew a western puppet, the shah of Iran, and became masters of their own destiny. The Saudi rulers, on the other hand, continue to depend on the west to keep the House of Saud in power.

    In the spirit of the author’s comment “that the march of history itself demands that the problems that have strained” Pak-Iran relations “in the recent past are isolated and resolved” the nut to crack is the Saudi factor. This seems quite challenging as the Pakistani establishment is now addicted to the Saudi funding that has perilous strings attached to it; for this bondage the 180 million people of Pakistan continue to pay a very heavy price.


  • Socius
    Oct 31, 2011 - 12:01AM

    But from what I’ve seen of pakistan and India and their diplomatic stance towards Iran, it’s always with a bunch of flip flopping. One day you love Iran and want to trade with them. Other days you don’t to continue getting American assistance + drone attacks.

    I think your politicians just really need to decide what they want to do. And figure out where they stand. And stick to it. Going back and forth this much has created distrust from both the Americans and the Iranians now. Yes there’s a bit of risk in doing so…but as we can see, Libya was attacked by NATO as soon as a few dozen revolutionaries/terrorists were killed by gaddafi. Yet Iran’s strategic ally, Syria, has killed over a thousand so far…and is just now gaining the upper hand in restabilizing their country. And who has dared attack them? No one. And what of Hezbollah in Lebanon? Iran, despite all the sanctions and rhetoric, is a strong country with a big economy, and vast energy resources. If inhere Pakistan, I wouldn’t shy away from restoring friendly relations with Iran.

    Do you think America would send drones to bomb targets inside your country if you were close to Iran as Syria is? No. Because Iran would supply you with the anti-air defense systems required to take the drones out. Then you wouldn’t be continually disrespected by obama and have your nation’s sovereignty violated over and over again.

    Think about it. Cheers.


  • Zaidi
    Oct 31, 2011 - 12:36AM

    Iran could be Pakistan’s next best friend after China, Iran is already very popular and well respected among Pakistanis especially Shias due to its Islamic and Just Govt. and foreign policies. It is also one of the most favorable touring spots because of Islamic holy shrines.


  • Umer hazarvi,
    Oct 31, 2011 - 1:38AM

    @ Zaidi
    Iran is not so papular in pakistan because of its shia stance on every thing from saudia to
    Bahrain to india pakistan its a only shia country.


  • Ali Tanoli,
    Oct 31, 2011 - 1:49AM

    @ Noor Nabi,
    In term Economic Help pakistan got money and other support from Saudia arabia than iran.


  • antanu g
    Oct 31, 2011 - 1:55AM

    today foreign relations Re based on economy and not sentiments.Pakistan should learn this and come close to Iran without antagonizing Saudis.May be they are able to achieve a coup of sorts between Saudia and Iran just on the line of US and China


  • Socius
    Oct 31, 2011 - 1:58AM

    @Ali Tanoli,:

    We’re not talking about short term free handout of money. Not only is it short term gains which also increase corruption, it also inhibits the long term growth potential of Pakistan. To be clear, at no point in my comment did I imply that Iran would give Pakistan money. I’m saying that friendly relations with Iran will allow your own economy to flourish. And it will help you regain sovereignty over your country. Or, you can continue on the present course of action where your leaders are funded by outside sources, and don’t always work in the best interests of Pakistan.

    Saudi Arabia does not have a sustainable government model. And they are just as much a slave to the United States as the current Pakistani government is. The whole point is that you need to stand on your own two feet. Think, decide, and act for yourselves. And keep the future prosperity of your country in mind.


  • Ali Tanoli,
    Oct 31, 2011 - 2:07AM

    @ Noor nabi,
    Not be so emotional man saudi arabia give more to pakistan than iran did they gave only
    Nusrath bhutto but saudia alone keeping millions of pakistanis in jobs and india too gets
    benefite lot from saudia and keep in mind islam came from saudia not iran i am not against the trade but pakistan when ever need any kind of help they get unconditionals
    for so long free oil and your all army salaries when u were in afghan war against russia go ask if they give you something i bet they give u there left hand thump with big teeths and
    iran is clever foxy lady.


  • nazarabi
    Oct 31, 2011 - 2:21AM

    all i am sayimg pashtuns should ask thme self, all these pashtuns are getting kill on both in the name of iran, pakistan,india, u.s.a. or arabs, what intrest is in there for the pashtuns,

    we pashtuns have been use by these people, and we niver learn, after so much pashtuns blood has bean lost, i dont want to bean seen taliban pathan .n.w.f.p. or khan, i want on both said pashtuns united as one pashtunistan, just like iran iranin tajikstan for tajiks, arabs india for hindo, pakistan urdo ,or kashmir, for kashmiry, i want see pashtunistan . for pashtun,


  • Nadir
    Oct 31, 2011 - 2:41AM

    Iran has used Pakistan as a battleground for a proxy war against Saudi Arabia. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia should be kept at arms length. Neither are democracies, and neither regime is popular. We have no relationship with the people of Iran who see us as occupying greater Balochistan or as supporters of groups such as Jundullah.


  • Mustafa Moiz
    Oct 31, 2011 - 5:17AM

    @Noor Nabi:
    And yet we have also gained from the Saudis for our friendship with them (in terms of oil). There is no need to mention the Saudis (as Iran itself has signed a Defense Pact with India).


  • Cautious
    Oct 31, 2011 - 5:56AM

    Iranian gas via the pipeline is a pipedream. You don’t have the money to build the pipeline – you don’t have the money to build the transmission lines – you don’t have the money to pay for the gas – and lets not forget that this pipeline is going to be an above ground pipeline running through one of the most dangerous portions of the World.
    There is no shortage of gas, coal or oil in the World – what Pakistan has is a shortage of money to pay for that fuel. The benefit of fuel being delivered via a pipeline vs supertanker depends on the cost of the project (which also includes security for the pipeline for those who like to gloss over the small stuff). One wonders why a country that can’t even complete an economic feasibility study thinks that gas is going to flow in the near future.


  • vasan
    Oct 31, 2011 - 6:33AM

    Iran VS Saudi Arabia again brings religion into the picture. Unless Pakistan cuts out religion from state and interstate politics, relationship with neighbours, muslim or otherwise will be topsy turvy only. It is going to be Shias, Sunnis, deobandis, ahmedis etc fighting among themselves when they get tired of fighting with Hindus and others. The root cause of troubles with Pakistan is religion mixed with state.


  • Maulana Diesel
    Oct 31, 2011 - 12:16PM

    Pak has a huge industrial base and is likely to expand in near future. Role of Iran, India, Afghanistan and China supporting Pakistan in its trade cannot be overlooked. We need to forget the past and look for a way forward to improving relations with our neighbors.


  • anwar
    Oct 31, 2011 - 12:54PM

    You are correct but careful how you push the message. USA is Rabid these days. [case in point saudi ambassador murder plot..].


  • hillbilly
    Oct 31, 2011 - 2:09PM


    i appreciate your concerns and i am all for good relations with iran , but i would like to clear some misconceptions that you have about the military capabilities of our 2 countries..militarily pakistan and iran are in a very different league, pakistan with all its problems is among the top 10 most powerful militaries in the world ( i am not considering nuclear weapons here ) where as iran’s military has been destroyed by the ayatullahs , iran has nothing to offer to pakistan in this field….. i wuld like to see a powerful iran but unfortunately its , militarily, way down the league viz a viz pakstan


  • omer bin abdulaziz
    Oct 31, 2011 - 2:54PM

    As long as the relationship with Iran is insulated from religion, it’s all fine. The Persians Shias are famous for meeting their goals under the pretext of brotherhood. While someone pointed out that the rivalry between Sunni Muslims and Shias date back to the Prophet (SAW)’s time, which is quite wrong, it has to be seen that the schisms run deeper than just the names of the sects.
    However, while Saudis might have a stake in Pakistan and further their policies, so do the Iranians. Any naive would believe otherwise.


  • Baqar
    Oct 31, 2011 - 4:07PM

    Leave Shia-Sunni difference aside because foreign relations are cold, calculated and selfish. When we take this perspective we would see that Saudis have given more harm to us than benefit (rise of extremeist Islam etc.). More importantly Saudis have just provided lip service to Kashmir cause. King Abdullah paid a visit to India lately but didnt honour the brother in arms (slave in service) i.e Pakistan with his gracious presence. On the other hand Iran is ready to help Pakistan not with alms but trade on parity basis and given the clout iran enjoys in the gulf region Pakistan must make use of it and increase its influence in the region. We must maintain good relations with both the countries, like China has good relations with Israel along with Iran and Lebanon. In the end we must not forget that its about Saudis-Iranians or Shia-Sunni, its about Pakistan and we must have a selfish, conservative foreign policy based on the phrase “Wats In It For Me”.


  • Baqar
    Oct 31, 2011 - 4:24PM

    @Ali Tanoli

    Dude Indeed Saudia has given loads of money but at wat soceital costs? and moreover have they ever contributed in socio-economic development in Pakistan? All they have done is promotion of US interests and please if Islam originated from thr doesnt mean Saudis are saints.
    Think about it


  • Ali Tanoli
    Oct 31, 2011 - 6:04PM

    @ Baqar
    I agreed but cant u see in afghanistan why Iran help Nothren Alliance why not pakistan
    and for your information pakistan is great country for fellow muslims and specially neighbour
    s we have big heart we never give hard time to iran and afghanistan and they allways enjoyed good relation and benefitted from us even other muslims too and i know how muslims countries treat us as a muslim we cant lived there but they can live in pakistan
    freelly.. we are big brother to them.


  • Ali Tanoli
    Oct 31, 2011 - 6:07PM

    @ Baqr,
    Releigous extremism in pakistan get help from both sides shias get from iran after khomainis renolution lot and sunnis Deobandi get support from saudia and other gulf arab


  • observer
    Oct 31, 2011 - 7:04PM

    Reminds me of an old Bollywood Quwwali, ” Main Idhaar Jaoon Ya Udhaar Jaoon, Is Sey Toh Behtar Hai Ki Mein,,,”.

    This is a serious predicament, but we know which road leads to ‘strategic depth’.


  • Ali Tanoli
    Oct 31, 2011 - 8:43PM

    @ Observer,
    I remember one old song too by Mukesh “Dunya ke rakhwalay sun derd bhray meray nalay” ….. it happend when u have so many nutts around …


  • Cynical
    Nov 1, 2011 - 12:15AM

    Iran is shia dominated.Friendship with them will affect our relationship with Saudis.


  • Abbas from the US
    Nov 1, 2011 - 10:09PM


    Arms of any kind supplied by an arms supplier and given assent to the supply by the country of origin, or “Arms selling Power” have an inbuilt clause against the transfer of such equipment to another country.
    Unless the Russians have a major interest in seeing the actual use of their technogy in neutralizing American air power, they will not look the other way if such a transfer was made by Iran to Pakistan. And if Iran was to disobey the terms of supply for the S700 Air Defence systems Russia could put a monkey wrench in the works of the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant, a plant with construction in progress abondoned by the original French suppliers in 1979 after the Iranian revolution, And the Iranians have taken 30 years to get the Russians to finish the work on this Nuclear Power Plant and to do the startup.

    Besides the vagaries of American power politics demand that Obama to keep the donations flowing with the help of the AIPAC (the American Israeli Public Action Committee), must demonstrate his commitment to the state of Israel as well as action now demanded by the House of Saud with a looming succession crisis, by initiating military action against Iran.

    There are international sanctions as approved by the UN Security Council against doing businsess with an Iranian busisness or governement entity, any Pakistani attempt to circumvent these sanctions could have a reatliatory affect on the already depressed Pakistani economy.

    A cautious wait and see approach is in the interests of Pakistan.


More in Opinion