Why all this fuss over Imran Khan’s Iran visit?

By Imtiaz Gul

Politics and journalism in Pakistan touched new lows following PM Imran Khan’s Tehran visit. Seasoned politicians and “know-all” journalists descended to new levels when nit-picking Khan’s statements on joint industrial zones and Pakistan’s counter terror efforts. With this, rational and objective discourse gave way to extremely politicise and parochial conversation in the media.

Either were these leaders and anchors acting out of their dislike for Khan or out of sheer ignorance? 

Multiple factors weighed heavily on Khan when he spoke to the press alongside President Hasan Rouhani. He was visibly tense and struggling to figure out as to how to respond to some of President Rouhani’s assertions on some issues that both sides discussed.

Insiders tell us that Rouhani was publicly making commitments that both sides did discuss but never agreed to on the spot. 

The idea of a Joint Rapid Response Force to combat terrorism, for example, did come up for discussions but actualisation of the idea is subject to agreement on a multitude of factors, diplomatic sources said. Discussions on proscribed organisations was productive but not the way the Iranian president projected it.

Rouhani shocked everyone, including the prime minister, when he announced both countries had agreed to form the anti-terror force. It was like “loose deliveries bowled by Rouhani” (distressed because of US sanctions), said an official.

Foreign office and military officials accompanying the Prime Minister insist that the “PM handled this provocative situation very well in the given circumstances.” 

On the other hand, detractors at home lunged at the PM’s mention of “non-state actors and actions against them” as something treasonous and many equated it to the infamous “Dawn Leaks”.

It amounts to quite an immature as well as amateurish postulation. Should the Prime Minister have shouted back like panellists do in TV talk shows? Certainly not.

No foreign media picked up the PM’s statement (“We will not allow any militant group to operate from our soil. We will not allow our soil to be used by anyone against anyone”) but the Indians and most Pakistani papers, some of which turned it into a super headline. This way they ignored the entire context of the talks, and used it as yet another opportunity to run down Pakistan’s image by denigrating the person of the prime minister. 

This headlining and clatter about contentious issues also ignored the details that FM Qureshi had given to media last week as to how attackers of Ormara used camps on Iranian side to plot attacks in Balochistan, and that was the common lead of all foreign media.

Hardly do they realise that what Nawaz Sharif conveyed through the Dawn newspaper in a very surreptitious way, apparently via his daughter, was an attempt to arraign and defame he Pakistani military establishment for “its support” to the non-state actors.  The “leak” was clearly intended to drag the army’s name. What the PM said in Tehran, in the presence of the ISI chief, simply resonated the paradigm shift that the country has been undergoing, also under the pressures coming from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF).

Secondly – and this is what most critics are missing – Imran Khan never said that  state institutions were in any way supporting terrorists outfits that are operating out of Pakistan. He simply stated the obvious; Punjabi, Pashtun, Baloch and Mohajir non-state actors have been operating in different parts of the country. Everybody in and outside the country knows it.

Why the big fuss then?

Khan simply reiterated that the government and its affiliate institutions are doing whatever they can to demobilise, dismantle, and eliminate these groups. 

Because of meanwhile inter-twined interests with China, Pakistan is gradually doing what it needs to do to satisfy people at home as well as critics abroad. This is what Khan conveyed to the Iranians and will do the same when he meets the Chinese leadership in a couple of days.

The Iranian president – in front of the press – in a typical arrogant Iranian way attempted to take a one-sided approach, where he expressed his reservations vis-à-vis Pakistan, but totally ignored Pakistan’s concerns as well as limitations in the current circumstances.

The Iranians need to understand – and the Chinese leadership has already understood it – that terrorism across the Pak-Iran border is complex and inextricably linked to regional geo-politics.

Iranian leaders cannot look at the troubles at Iran-Pakistan border in isolation of its problems and relations with the United States, Russia and India. The entire region is overflowing with conflicting geo-political manoeuvres and an embattled country such as Pakistan would do only this much.

They simply cannot close their eyes to the so-called “ring of fire” that India or others have laid around Pakistan (hostile Bangladesh, troubled and violence-hit western border, southwester border i.e. Iran and Chabahar port and a continuously hot eastern border).

Khan’s visit to Tehran stands out on two counts; for the first time, both had substantive discussion on cross -border terrorism. The second outcome relates to agreement on the decision to – as soon as possible – open two new international border points for greater flow of people and goods on the 920-km border.

This is something that offers a win-win for both countries because of the geographical proximity. 

Also, one would hope that Iranians don’t look at this as a one-way relationship. Nor should they expect from Pakistan to embrace their wishes lock stock and barrel.

Tehran should not expect Pakistan – a country that has survived terrorist monsters, external proxies and economic adversity – will look after Iranian interests at the cost of its own interests, i.e. head-on confrontation with the United States. 

The writer is Executive Director, CRSS

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