What’s Iran really up to with Pak, China?

Bhopinder Singh

Eyebrows were raised in India when Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif called out China and Pakistan to join the development of Chabahar port, just a month after New Delhi inked a pact with Tehran to lease a part of the strategic port. Mr Zarif was on a three-day Pakistan visit, leading a 30-member business delegation, when he is said to have made the outreach while delivering a lecture at the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad, a think tank backed by Pakistan’s foreign ministry. Adding to the situational tease was the assurance by the Iranian minister that it would not allow its territory to be used against Pakistan’s interests and a reciprocal assurance came forthwith by Pakistan (though this part didn’t hog the media limelight). The optics were further spiced with the de rigueur meeting of the Iranian delegation with Pakistan’s Army Chief Gen. Javed Bajwa and national security adviser Lt. Gen. Nasser Khan Janjua (Retd).
Was it an unnecessary “over-read” of the normal diplomatic courtesies and generalities by New Delhi? Or was it in line with the occasional tease and insertion of the “Kashmir” angularity that Tehran tactically deploys? As recently as last year, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei had clubbed the “people of Kashmir”, along with Yemeni, Syrian and Bahrainis, as part of his sermon on the “many wounds inflicted on the body of the Islamic world”! It was a strange insertion of the “K” word with three other citizenries as the Iranian accusation had a decided anti-sectarian slant, and was basically targeting the Sunni majority, Saudis, Egyptians and Emiratis. This surprising addition didn’t persist too long and was not raised again in the subsequent sermons — observers attributed it to a typical pressure tactic by Tehran to register its own concerns over India’s slow progress on Chabahar, and the parallel deepening of New Delhi’s ties with Arab sheikhdoms, and worse, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump. This unwarranted mention of Kashmir last year was previously done in 2010 when India had shocked Iran by voting against it at the International Atomic Energy Agency.
A certain situational quid pro quo is invariably at play to justify Iran’s infrequent allusion to the Kashmir card. Actually, it was Iran which had famously saved the day for India in 1994 when it had backed out of a crucial Organisation of Islamic Conference resolution on alleged human rights violations in Kashmir. This resolution was proposed by Pakistan and was backed by the OIC forum in order to embarrass India; Iran’s sudden withdrawal aborted the OIC resolution as it operates on the principle of consensus.
Historically, Iran has been careful to refrain from positing Kashmir in its political rhetoric, just like it avoids mentioning Chechnya, Kosovo or Xinjiang, in order to retain good relations with Russia, Serbia and China. For Pakistan, co-religiosity (as Islamabad insists on calling Iran a “brotherly Islamic state”) and a 909-km border contiguity is still worth only about $1 billion of annual trade with Iran, whereas Tehran’s “civilisational friendship” with India across thousands of kilometers of the Arabian Sea has still managed over $13 billion of trade (despite some sanctions still in place). Clearly, the fact that the ummah and the enflamed Middle Eastern battlegrounds are sharply divided along sectarian lines and the fact that Pakistan has decided to throw its weight with the Saudi-led bloc is a matter of fundamental irreconcilability for Iran.
The Prince Mohammad bin Salman-led Saudi Arabia has raised tempers and upped its ante against Iran with the formation of the 41-nation (including Pakistan, but without Shia-ruled Iran, Iraq and Syria) Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC) — a military confederation-led by former Pakistan military chief Gen. Raheel Sharif. The Riyadh-headquartered IMCTC is seen as a bulwark against the growing Iranian footprint in the region and against Iranian proxies like Yemeni Houthis and Lebanese Hezbollah. The faultlines between the two blocs are widening, with the Iranians calling the young Saudi prince a man of “simple mind” while Mohammad bin Salman had equated the Iranian leadership to Hitler!
Even bilaterally, beyond the sectarian dissonance and the alignment of Pakistan with the Saudi-led bloc, Iran has been mulling over legal options to force Pakistan to complete its side of the IP gas pipeline. Whispers are rife of a $1 billion compensation suit by Iran against Pakistan at the International Court of Justice. Afghanistan is another sore point in the Iran-Pakistan equation, where the Pakistani complicity with the Afghan Taliban has cemented the India-Afghanistan-Iran alignment, which vehemently opposes the duplicitous role played by Pakistan. The bonhomie, optimism and personalised touches in Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s recent visit to India were in sharp contrast to the constant yo-yo in Iran-Pakistan affairs, which are also susceptible to flareups. A few years back, Iran had warned Pakistan that it would target militant hideouts inside Pakistan if Islamabad didn’t act against Sunni jihadists operating inside Pakistan — the same accusation against Pakistan that is made by India and Afghanistan.
Given this background, Iran’s assurances that the Chabahar port project was not meant to “encircle Pakistan” or “strangulate anybody” may have been misconstrued overenthusiastically by the Pakistani establishment to be a counterpoise to the Indo-Iranian strategic convergence. However, the barely veiled and loaded wordsmithing of roping in its nemesis, Saudi Arabia, in the conversational framework was a left-handed move. “Our relations with India, just like Pakistan’s relations with Saudi Arabia, are not against Pakistan, as we understand Pakistan’s relations with Saudi Arabia are not against Iran”. The reality of Pakistan’s abject surrender, servility and commitment to Saudi Arabia in all its affairs is a well-established fact that Tehran fully comprehends. The spin doctors in Islamabad may have had a field day in twisting contexts, but the history, fundamentals and strategic underpinnings that define bilateral equations will always prefer an Indo-Iranian equation over the intrigues of Pakistani-Iranian dynamics.

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