Momentous events are occurring with dizzying speed, signaling the ascent of new eastern powers and the rapid decline of western economic and military clout. The Taliban’s crushing defeat of the US and its allies on 15 August was merely one such symbol of the latter’s decline, at the hands, no less, of the poorest of all Muslims, the Pashtun.
Whereas a decade ago these transitions were harder to spot, today, visible alignments are fast emerging, turning shades of gray into solid blocks of black or white. Western governments and their Arab protectorates, flanked by countries such as Japan and India, have emerged as one bloc. China, Russia and some important nations of the Muslim world, such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran, are emerging as the rival bloc. Turkey and some Central Asian states remain undecided, in an unsettled middle.
In short, the US helms one bloc and China, the other. Many analysts may try to escape the use of such a binary view of geopolitics, only to eventually find that the gray zones are fast disappearing.
Eurasianism, in a nutshell
China’s geoeconomic acceleration in the region depends much on Pakistan because the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is pivotal for the success of Xi JinPing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). So, from the Chinese perspective, Pakistan must be fully secure. And Pakistani security today depends on Afghanistan. Over the past twenty years, Pakistan has lost hundreds of thousands of lives, over five thousand military personnel, and around $200 billion in economic losses, because it once signed up as an American ally in the ‘war on terror’ that wreaked havoc from Iraq to Yemen.
From the Chinese point of view, the security of both Afghanistan and Pakistan is the first stepping stone toward the realization of its prized, strategic CPEC vision, after which comes BRI and Eurasian security. The pillars of security that have successfully emerged against foreign subversion thus far are the battle-hardened Taliban and the Pakistani military.
China knows that to have peace in the region, it has no choice but to upgrade its allies’ capabilities against foreign subversion. This was also a consensus in the September Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) meeting, at which Iran was officially inaugurated as the groups’ ninth member state. The Islamic Republic, as we shall see, is now a critical asset to the China bloc, and smoothing its relations with other Chinese regional allies will only cement their collective security.
The other essential consensus that emerged at that SCO meeting, was the prioritization of Afghanistan’s stability and security, led by four nations – China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan, with the latter leading the effort. To do this effectively, Iran and Pakistan need to ditch their differences and recalibrate their relationship to realize mutual, pressing goals.
Pakistan’s grievances against Iran
Pakistan understands that the policies of Iran towards its western neighbors are based on sound logic. It views Iran’s role in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Resistance Axis against Israeli occupation and the western world as just and ethical. But for Pakistan, Iran’s policies towards its eastern and northern neighbors seem irrational.
In the past, a significant portion of the war of terror in Afghanistan was outsourced by the US to India. Today, India is still happy to do Washington’s dirty work by subverting the CPEC and BRI and causing bloodshed in Pakistan. From 2007 until the fall of Kabul in 2021, India hosted dozens of consulates in Afghanistan and actively radicalized the western provinces of Pakistan adjacent to the Afghan border.
Ajit Doval, Indian President Narendra Modi’s national security advisor, has publicly stated that New Delhi supports terrorist organizations such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) for secession of Pakistan’s Western regions. Kulbhoshan Jadav, the alleged Indian spy in Pakistani custody whose case is sub-judice with the International Court of Justice, was reportedly facilitated into Pakistan by Iran.
While India actively engaged in terrorism against Pakistan, Islamabad believes that Tehran turned a blind eye and allowed the Indians to sabotage Pakistan using the mutual border with Iran. The rest of the world fell victim to the crafty western narrative that ‘democratic India’ was the shining city on the hill, while the Afghan Taliban and Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), who were busy fighting India, were evil. With the victory of the Taliban and the end of Afghanistan’s foreign occupation, all that is now gone. India is clearly unhappy about the new state of affairs, but Pakistanis wonder why Iran isn’t celebrating quite yet.
Iranians accused Pakistan of military involvement in the Panjshir Valley, which was taken from the anti-Taliban, Afghan resistance led by Ahmad Massoud and Amrullah Saleh without any protracted battle. Pakistan denies intervening militarily in Panjshir, but has assisted Afghanistan against foreign occupations throughout the last half century, helping to eject both the former Soviet Union and the United States from Afghan lands. It has had little choice but to help fellow Pashtun tribesmen resist external attempts to impose foreign governance on Afghanistan.
While on one hand Islamabad cleaves to this principled stance, it also remains subservient to many demands of the West, which still provides Pakistan with vital defense equipment and IMF loans. It is a tightrope walk to be sure, one that has drawn the ire of the US and its media in recent years.
Iran has traditionally opposed the Taliban and supported the Northern Alliance, also backed by the West and, earlier, by the USSR. But nothing irks Pakistan more than Iran’s deepening relations with India at the cost of its relations with Pakistan. Tehran and New Delhi’s collaboration on Iran’s Chabahar Port, for instance, is in direct competition with Pakistan-China’s mirror project, Gwadar Port, on the other side of that border.
Chabahar provides India with access to oil and gas resources from Iran and Central Asia, and preferential treatment for Indian goods headed to these markets. For Iran, the port represents its closest access to the Indian Ocean, and seeks to be a major hub for future transit and trade routes that can enrich the country’s poorer eastern provinces. Sanctions-hit Iran could not, at one time, be too fussy about the partnerships it struck with willing nations, and despite India’s hot-and-cold readiness to advance the Chabahar project, the work continues.
From Islamabad’s perspective, an Iran-India nexus seem illogical for Tehran: If the US and Israel are declared enemies of Iran, and India is the deepest strategic partner of both, then Iran’s support for India and its friction against Pakistan and Afghanistan make little sense for Iran’s longterm security.
Iranian nationals recently caught in Quetta by Pakistani authorities also confessed that they were commissioned to sabotage CPEC. The targeting of Chinese nationals inside Pakistan by foreign elements has been going on for a few years now. Various reports point fingers at India, Iran, and others, but it is unclear if the attacks are sanctioned by their respective governments or, in the likely case of Iran, by separatist or terrorist groups holed up in the border areas.
Recently, Iran amassed its troops and launched large military exercises on its border with Azerbaijan in response to reports that Israeli special forces were operating across the border. Turkey then announced that it will conduct military exercises on the border too. Iran enjoys excellent relations with Armenia (whom Pakistan does not recognize) and Russia, while Turkey’s relations with its own NATO members are slowly dwindling. This is another important juncture of reset, although its outcome is still too early to determine.
The reason Turkey-Pakistan relations cannot be bypassed when approaching Iran-Pakistan relations is due to the following alignments: Turkey and China are two of Pakistan’s closest bilateral relations in the world going back to the pre-partition history of Muslim India which launched the Khilafat Movement upon the implosion of the Ottoman Empire. Turkey-Azerbaijan relations are almost identical to Pakistan-Azerbaijan ties. In the recent war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, Baku was full of Turkish and Pakistani flags and national songs.
Iran however, may be closer to Armenia than Azerbaijan despite the fact that it is itself almost one quarter Turkish-Azeri. Iran’s proclivity towards India and Armenia is not comprehensible for Turkey, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Af-Pak can play a role of mediation between the Persians and the Turks. If they fail, they will remain neutral but if they have to choose they will only reluctantly choose the Turks because they consider Iran very much a part of their millat. Iranians are deeply-admired by the vast majority of Pakistanis, Afghans and Turks for their contributions of Persian language, culture, arts, knowledge traditions, without which Islamic civilization would remain utterly incomplete.
Now we turn to the other side of the picture.
Iran’s grievances against Pakistan
From Iran’s perspective, Pakistan has let down Iran on numerous occasions. In the 1990s, Tehran offered to take on the load of Pakistan’s defense budget if Pakistan shared its expertise toward the development of Iran’s nuclear program, but Pakistan turned down the offer.
In the 2000s, Iran and Pakistan agreed to build a gas pipeline between the two nations, and the Iranians spent billions of dollars constructing their part of the insfrastructure. Under the rule of the pro-Saudi Zardari/Nawaz governments however, while Pakistan consistently promised to build its part of the pipeline, pressures from Washington ultimately forced it to ditch the project. It is not without reason, therefore, that Iran turned to India in search of an energy market, and trade and infrastructure deals.
Iran has accused the Pakistani state of allowing terror groups like Jaish al-Adl to operate from within Pakistan’s borders, resulting in the deaths and kidnapping of thousands of Iranian border guards over the years. Amidst the wide deserts and rugged mountains where the borders of three nations (Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran) converge, the CIA, Saudi intelligence agencies, and India’s external intelligence Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), have remained ever active, busy keeping both states at odds with each other.
Foreign-funded Iranian and Pakistani separatist and terror groups inhabit the vast and difficult-to-monitor terrain between the two borders, and Iranian officials have, at various junctures, accused Pakistani forces of subversively aiding these groups.
Iran’s suspicions have been exacerbated by Pakistan’s sycophantic relations with the Saudis, the regional archenemies of Iranians. Pakistan has historically turned a blind eye toward the spread of Wahhabi ideas in many Saudi-funded Pakistani madrassas, where anti-Shia and anti-Iran sentiments proliferate.
Pro-American and Pro-Saudi Pakistani officials have habitually put their weight behind Saudi Arabia at the expense of Iran. Similarly, during the Iran-Iraq War, despite the fact that Pakistani public opinion heavily favored Iran, Islamabad instead struck an unsupportive posture of ‘neutrality’ which Iran did not appreciate.
Revitalizing the Iran-Pakistan friendship
It is ironic that when Iran and Pakistan had secular governments, the two states enjoyed excellent mutual relations, but that as soon as their governments embarked on Islamization programs, their friendship faltered.
Today, Pakistan and Iran might still find fault with each other’s policies, but the irritation is unlikely to last. These are the short-term hiccups of the new geopolitical configurations which will be smoothed out under the economic weight of China.
Iran, Pakistan, and most West and Central Asian states will have little option but to cooperate together under Pax Sinica if they seek to escape centuries old western oppression and revive their economies.
In mid-September, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi met privately in Dushanbe, Tajikistan to discuss Afghanistan and other pressing issues.
Thanking Iran for supporting Pakistan’s position on the contentious Kashmir issue with India, Khan told Raisi: “We are looking after the all-inclusive development of relations with Iran, especially in the field of transportation, and we believe that improving the level of cooperation between the two countries will have positive regional and global effects.”
Raisi agreed, emphasizing that “establishing security in the border areas can activate the significant capacities of these areas for economic and trade interactions, and warned that the two states “should not allow outsiders’ sabotage to affect these good relations.”
Both Iran and Pakistan share virtually identical interests in Afghanistan’s stability, mutual border security, cooperation with China, elimination of terrorism, benefits of multilateralism, prioritizing regional development, boosting trade ties, building infrastructure, and cooperation in the field of energy.
Over a century ago, Chinese scholar Deng Zhongxia said that if five people unite, their power equals one tiger; if ten people unite, they rival a dragon; and if one hundred people unite, they are as strong as Mount Tai. It is ironic that China’s non-theistic culture has to sing the praises of cooperation to Muslim nations who throughout history were known as al-muahidoon, the people of unity.