Islamabad: Regardless of the opposition’s unjustified screaming over what they had tried to do and failed, Prime Minister Imran Khan spoke the truth about cross-border terrorism and how to mutually rectify it and mend fences with Iran. Slip of tongue apart, his basic argument to leave behind a conflictual past to usher in a new era of peace and cooperation should be appreciated across all party divides.
However, unlike former PM Nawaz Sharif and former president Asif Ali Zardari, Imran Khan is exceptionally lucky not to be castigated by those overriding powers for such initiatives – as happened to civilian governments in the past. Demonstrably accompanied by the director general of the ISI, the prime minister’s offer to create a bilateral rapid reaction force to check two-way cross-border terrorism looks serious this time. Last time, when Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was in Islamabad, the visiting dignitary was rebuffed by the then security setup, implicating Iran in the dirty network of Kulbhushan Jhadev. However, this time prior to the PM’s maiden official visit to Tehran, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi was quick to accuse Iran of the Makran Highway attack that resulted in the killing of a dozen people. Perhaps the FM and the PM were not on the same page.
The prime minister’s visit to Iran had come at a time when the wavier on US trade-related sanctions against Iran is to be withdrawn after May 1 and Tehran is to again face a horrendous encirclement from a US-led Middle-Eastern coalition, including Saudi Arabia and Israel. In the given divisive context of Saudi-Iranian rivalry, Pakistan’s political opposition should have taken into consideration the serious implications of Prime Minister Khan’s unequivocal reassurance to President Rouhani not to become a part of any coalition against Iran.
Ever since the eruption of the conflict between the Saudis and the Yemeni Houthi militia, Pakistan’s parliament has been unanimous on not taking sides. And the position taken by PM Khan is in sync with the resolution of the last parliament. But this is now a much more complex issue than it was a few years ago, when Pakistan had not borrowed so much from the Saudis and the Emirates.
There is no denying the fact that the Saudis have been supporting anti-Shia terrorist groups and a widespread network of seminaries in Pakistan. Given the ongoing disturbance among the Sunni-Baluch of Sistan-Baluchistan province in Iran and sections of the Baloch population in Pakistan, ethnic-nationalist militants and sectarian terrorists have been engaged in an internecine conflict within and across the international border. Anti-Shia and anti-Iran sectarian outfits have been spreading sectarianism and killing Shias, including the Hazara community, besides indulging in subversive activities across the border. Recently, Iran accused Pakistani elements in the killing of its 27 Revolutionary Guards, while Pakistan accused Iranian elements for the killing of its security personnel near Turbat.
Faced with the dangerous prospects of being placed on the black-list by the Financial Action Task Force, Pakistan has been trying hard to control the menace of proscribed terrorist outfits which have been instrumental in bringing all neighbours into conflict with Pakistan. Iran, which is overwhelmed with the burden of its extended multiple military fronts, also needed calm on its eastern border with Pakistan. Suspecting foreign intervention, both the nation- states are also keen to act against Baloch militancy and separatism – which has the convenience of a 959 km porous border – in their respective areas. Now a fence is to be built on the border and a “joint rapid reaction force” will act against the agent provocateurs.
Acting against sectarian outfits is a necessary prerequisite for societal cohesion in Pakistan where Shias are one of the three major sects. According to a Pew opinion survey, Iran remains a popular country in Pakistan.
President Rouhani’s far-reaching offer to connect the Chabahar Port with the Gwadar Port by railroad and to extend the gas pipeline project to western China perfectly fits into the grand design of CPEC. This should alleviate Pakistan’s concerns about Indian designs via the Chabahar route. From a long-term perspective, Iran, India and Afghanistan should be joining the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and CPEC. If the Saudis can build an oil refinery complex in Gwadar, why don’t we complete our side of the gas pipeline from Iran?
Given the impending embargo on Iran and expected jump in oil prices, it would be good to have the gas pipeline completed at the earliest while putting together a barter of goods regime to evade US sanctions which are being opposed by Europe, Russia, India, China, South Korea and others. However, it is too delicate to balance the conflicting demands of the two major rivals in the Muslim world. And it is prudent to balance the Arabian connection with our Persian connection.
Paradoxically, the prime minister’s narcissistic comparison of his ‘Naya Pakistan’, which is in doldrums, with the Iranian Revolution is quite intriguing. He seems to have found some commonalities with the conservative ethos, if not false egalitarianism. Like his own self-contradictory vision, the Ayatollahs’ Iran is also suffering from an extreme mismatch of orthodoxy and revisionism, authoritarianism and populism, militancy and pragmatism, and egalitarianism and exploitation. Unlike the PTI and its false ‘change’, the Iranian Revolution has been consistent in its ideological, political and cultural moors, though they might have been painful and suffocating for the valiant Iranian people. Indeed, as compared to a dependent and neo-colonial Pakistan, Iran is consistently anti-imperialist and traditionalist under the hegemony of an authoritarian clergy.
While Iran has enormous rental income from its huge gas and oil reservoirs to sustain its defiance and expansionism, Pakistan has nothing but a backward agriculture, fragile industrial base and a repressive warrior state at the cost of a neglected and exploited labour force. What we need to learn from Iran is the way it struck a nuclear deal with the five-plus-one powers and is attempting to break the US blockade and isolate President Trump, who is trying to disrupt the international oil market and global growth.
These are not good signs for the regime of ‘change’ which is crumbling under the weight of its own promise and failure to deliver. Hopefully, Prime Minister’s remarks about the Iranian Revolution were a slip of the tongue. He needs to extend a similar olive branch to our other neighbours whenever the opportune time comes. This is how Pakistan can wriggle out of its current predicaments and move towards a meaningful socio-economic change for its people.
The writer is a senior journalist. Email: [email protected]