By Agha Hussain
Ideology has always remained central in Iran’s foreign policy, and has acted as both a means of pursuing its national interests and as a dominant factor shaping those interests. Iran’s brand of political Islamism, the Velayat e Faqih formulated by Ayatollah Khomeini and centered around pan-Islamic oriented opposition to foreign hegemony over Muslim populations, has driven its involvement in the struggles against its adversaries across the Middle East. This involvement has proven over the decades, since the 1979 Revolution, as being crucial for Iran’s survival against highly aggressive, expansionist adversaries.
Utilizing its pan-Islamic rhetoric, Iran has been able to establish a solid footing in the affairs of the states across the Middle East and North Africa region, which has proven vital for it in keeping states such as Iraq or Lebanon from slipping into its enemies’ influence. Toward Iran’s east, however, in a region populated with more Muslims than the Middle East, it has itself imposed limits upon its progress in gaining similar socio-political tract and thus ‘exporting the revolution’, with its attitude toward Pakistan being a prime example of this.
Iran’s confused narrative regarding its security is not only understandable but prudent. However, in the case of its ties with Pakistan, with whom it shares the volatile Balochistan region, its security paradigm assumes an irrational dimension. This irrationality has come increasingly to incorporate a duplicitous component which may work in the future to sour Pakistan-Iran ties regardless of the current positive trajectory.
Iran’s military officials still readily adopt a harsh rhetoric against Pakistan when terrorism rears its ugly head in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchestan province, despite Pakistan undeniably cooperating with Iran in counter-terror efforts to benefit both sides. Pakistan’s military rescued abducted Iranian soldiers from the extremist group Jaish al Adl in November last year as well as recently in March.
Pakistan has also itself dealt with an insurgency led by India-backed separatist groups (also known for sectarian motivated target killings) in Balochistan for many years. Pakistani Balochistan has seen frequent terrorist attacks over the last few years.
In fact, the monumental reduction in terrorist incidents seen across the rest of the country – especially in what used to be the hotbed of Takfiri groups, the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) – has not been replicated in Balochistan. The vast Balochistan, 40% of Pakistan’s landmass but only 2% of its population, is of great significance to hegemonic rivals of Pakistan and China’s utilization of Pakistan for its land corridor to the Arabian Sea.
The notion that stability in the region would not be something Pakistan would actively render sacrifices toward ensuring is baseless from both a simple security perspective and a broader geostrategic one. While obviously blatantly false, as has been demonstrated by Pakistan putting its money where its mouth is, regarding acting against anti-Iran terrorist groups, the idea that Pakistan would support anti-Iran terror also has other realities and recent developments directly contradicting it.
The Pakistani military itself led outreach to Iran to improve the underutilized state of relations between the two states with Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s historic Iran visit in November 2017. There was, in addition, no furious barrage of accusations from the Pakistani side against Iran in March 2016 following the capture of serving Indian spy and facilitator of Baloch separatists Kulbhushan Yadav who had crossed over into Pakistan from Iran where he used business activities in Chabahar Port as a cover.
Pakistan-Iran relations following the arrest of Yadav, in fact, registered an improvement with greater diplomatic interactions and enhancements in bilateral economic ties. Pakistan’s military even signed a joint defence production pact with the Iranians in July last year.
Given these circumstances, the outbursts by senior officials in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) against Pakistan – coming swiftly after a quick Indian stopover visit to Tehran soon after the 13 February Jaish al Adl bombing which killed 27 IRGC members and thus likely prodded on by India – made little sense.
Contrasting starkly to Pakistan’s cooperation with the IRGC in rescuing its guards from Jaish al Adl was Iran’s silence on Yadav. While not backing up India’s erratic claims about him being kidnapped on the Iranian territory by Pakistan, Iran not only has not taken up the issue of his activities on its soil with India but has insisted on scapegoating Pakistan for the security issues of the vital Balochistan region as opposed to finally confronting India over it.
India is not shy about its support for anti-Pakistan groups in Balochistan, as Narendra Modi made clear long ago. India also propagandizes on the behalf of Baloch separatists and helps run their online portfolios. That India is in a better position to continue supporting such groups owing to Iran leasing it Chabahar Port, from where running businesses as fronts for financing groups such as the BLA (Baloch Liberation Army) is a massive strategic boon, should ideally compel Iran to consider whether anti-Iran groups such as Jaish al Adl are also getting their material support from India.
It is hard, in fact, to image where else inimical elements in Balochistan would be getting their material support if not from a state which has already remained neck-deep in creating unrest in Balochistan for several years now.
For Iran, this stance toward South Asian affairs produces both inaccurate and clumsy policies toward the volatile Balochistan region and compromises Iran’s own security; which it has historically been compelled to prioritize over all else. As analyzed by the author in this article, India stands with its close ties to Israel and the US and amicable ties with the Gulf Arab rivals of Iran (which Iran seems to forget to criticize while lashing out at Pakistan for its ties to the Saudis) as a prime partner for these rivals of Iran to damage it in case Balochistan becomes a major theatre of conflict in the near future while Pakistan would, bound by the need to survive, be a natural partner.
Moreover, as a pan-Islamic power, this stance of Iran vis-à-vis Pakistan, India and Balochistan besides being self-sabotaging is also hypocritical. The Muslim majority nation of Pakistan would quite clearly see Iran’s attitude toward Pakistan as a ‘betrayal’ by Iran of Ummah solidarity despite Pakistan’s amicable stance toward Iran and as a sign of Iran’s collaboration with India’s virulently anti-Muslim Hindutva regime.
The eventual souring of Pakistan-Iran ties driven by Iran’s scapegoating of Pakistan would take the form of an active faultline in Iran’s ties with its larger, militarily powerful Sunni majority, neighbour which may prove disastrous.
Iran cannot afford to continue to point out Pakistan’s ties to the Saudis, which are yet to cause any sort of Pakistani aggression or conspiracy against Iran, as a point of concern while India uses Iranian territory against Pakistan. A Pakistani nation hostile to Iran would lead to a situation both states would ideally want to avoid for fear of igniting sectarian tensions.
Additionally, the lost opportunity that this rigidness from Iran represents with regard to Iran’s soft-power, something which has been a vital part of Iran’s foreign policy since 1979, in Pakistan is tragic unto itself. Pakistanis are renowned for their almost somewhat naïve level of sympathy with foreign states, based on none other than them being Muslim and Iran would cement its own repute as an Islamic powerhouse by maintaining goodwill among them. Iran could counter assertions of it being a ‘Shia supremacist’ or even ‘neo-Safavid’ state by entering into close ties with Pakistan centered around mutual respect and understanding as opposed to hubris and arrogance.
Conversely, scapegoating Pakistan and ignoring India’s anti-Pakistan activities would sabotage Iran’s own security as well as its repute among Muslims abroad who may begin to see it as an anti-Sunni power. An overhauling of Iran’s approach toward Pakistan as well as India is necessary, especially when one considers that the USA’s highly Israel-influenced sanctioning authorities did not waive sanctions for Chabahar out of goodwill for Iran’s economy but as a blessing for India’s West-friendly geopolitical bigger-picture.
The author, Agha Hussain, is a Research Analyst at the Institute of Regional Studies, Islamabad, Pakistan, as well as an editorial contributor to the websites Eurasia Future and Regional Rapport. His writings have a particular focus on Middle Eastern affairs and history and Pakistan’s foreign policy. He can be reached at @AghaHussainReal