Situationer: Imran Khan’s visit to Iran should be more than a balancing act


By Asif Durrani
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Iran from 21-22 April assumes importance due to emerging situation in the region, especially after the US State Department’s declaration of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), or Pasdaran, as Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). This will be the first visit of Prime Minister Khan to Iran. The visit will include a brief stopover in Mashhad before arriving in Tehran for bilateral talks with the Iranian leaders which include a call on the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei and holding detailed discussions with President Hasan Rouhani.
The visit belies earlier speculations by commentators that after 13 February suicide attack on IRGC at the Zahedan-Khash Highway, the relationship between Iran and Pakistan has touched the lowest ebb. Iranian officials have been alleging that Jaish-e-Adl, a dissident organization of Iranian Baloch, was operating from the Pakistani Balochistan and has been responsible for the act. Iran also alleges that Saudi Arabia and UAE finance Jaish-e-Adl’s operations in its Balochistan. While Pakistan has been contesting the Iranian claim, it has always lent cooperation in apprehending Jaish-e –Adl operatives. Prime Minister Khan’s visit is a reflection of deep-rooted relationship which the two countries enjoy despite certain hiccups caused due to vested interest trying to create unrest in Iranian and Pakistani Balochistans.
The US move to designate the IRGC as an FTO is aimed at further escalation of tensions with Iran. Earlier, President Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal known as Joint Comprehensive Programme of Action (JCPOA) in May last year and revived sanctions against Iran, primarily hitting at Iran’s energy sector. The US sanctions bar other nations from doing business with Iran.
Prime Minister Khan’s visit aims at reassuring the leadership in Iran that Pakistan values friendship with Iran, and that its relationship with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states would not be at the cost of its relations with Iran. Iran knows it full well that Pakistan has always tried to maintain a balance in its relationship with GCC and Iran. It had also tried to play a mediatory role between Iran and Saudi Arabia in early 2016 when the former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and former COAS General Raheel Sharif jointly undertook a mediatory tour of Iran and Saudi Arabia. However, the initiative could not progress much due to Saudi hardline approach although Iranian leaders expressed their readiness for mediation with the Saudis.
While there is no fixed agenda of the visit, certain important bilateral and regional issues would be the focus of attention of the two leaders. First, on the strategic level, both Pakistan and Iran are aware of the emerging situation in the region. Apart from the US economic sanctions, peace in Afghanistan will have direct bearing for the two neighbouring countries of Afghanistan. Prime Minister Khan is likely to broach the situation in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of American troops. For Iran, withdrawal of the American troops would be a source of satisfaction. Mr. Khan is likely to share Pakistan’s perspective on the post-withdrawal scenario in Afghanistan. Fortunately, China and Russia share Pakistan’s perspective on the US withdrawal. Iran is likely to join the consensus in order to give a strong message that neighbours of Afghanistan would not allow any interference in the internal matters of Afghanistan. In return, these countries may expect complete neutrality from Afghanistan.
Second, finalization of Free Trade Agreement (FTA) which has entered the final stages of negotiations needs to be looked into at the apex level. Already the two countries are implementing the Preferential Trade Agreement (PTA) which allows exchange of commodities on the basis of preferential tariffs. The current trade between the two countries is estimated at $ 1.3 billion despite the US sanctions.
Third, the US sanctions have badly impacted the current trade situation between Iran and rest of the world, including Pakistan. Pakistani banks are not ready to do business with Iran for fear of American sanctions despite agreement between the State Bank of Pakistan and Bank Milli Iran in 2017 allowing commercial banks to conduct their business through normal banking channels. Hopefully, Prime Minister Khan’s visit would provide the opportunity to both the countries to find a way out, preferably through currency swap which has been followed by China, India and Japan.
Fourth, opening of additional border points would not only give boost to bilateral trade but also generate better economic and job opportunities for the people on both sides of the border. Presently, only Zahedan border is operative which cannot cater for the trade requirements of the two countries with a 920-kilometer-long border. For the past many years there has been agreement on opening of two border posts along the border; Gabd (Pakistan)—Reemdan (Iran) and Mand (Pakistan)—Pishin (Iran) border posts are ready for operation along with border markets.
Fifth, Iran’s participation in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project would be another major issue of interest for both the countries. China is Iran’s largest trading partner with $35 billion annual trade. CPEC offers a viable and economic route for China-Iran trade transiting through Pakistan besides creating additional trade opportunities between Pakistan and Iran.
Sixth, Pakistan and Iran have signed gas pipeline agreement in March 2013. Despite a lapse of six years the project remains in deep freeze for variety of reasons. Had the project been implemented in time it would have supplied gas to Pakistan from December 2014 which would have added 5500-Megawatt electricity into the system for which we had the generation capacity. It is still not late if necessary political will is displayed by the government.
Seventh, the two countries may also discuss initiation of ferry service between Karachi-Gwadar-Chabahar to promote trade and people to people interaction. Since Iran does not have a deep seaport for which it relies on Jabel Ali seaport of Dubai, Gwadar offers an alternative to Iran. In fact, Gwadar and Chabahar can compliment each other in trade and ferry services.
Finally, being neighbours both Pakistan and Iran have always stood by each other. It is time for Pakistan to express solidarity with Iran when the Americans have declared IRGC as a terrorist organization, which is a wrong precedent in the conduct of international relations. American decision smacks of duplicity as not long-ago President Trump was all praise for the IRGC for “killing Daesh in Iraq and Syria”. Similarly, being neighbours we should conduct our normal trade with Iran; Turkey has refused to bow under America pressure and has wowed to raise the current level of bilateral trade with Iran from $10 billion to $30 billion in the next five years. Therefore, hallmark of the visit should be more than a balancing act.

The writer is a former ambassador