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Nawaz Sharif's visit to Iran

13 May, 2014

By Javid Hussain


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Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's visit to Iran from 11-12 May took place after an interval of more than 16 years. His last visit to Tehran as the Prime Minister of Pakistan came about in December, 1997 to attend the OIC Summit. (Regrettably, according to newspaper reports, the Prime Minister was made to say in Tehran that his first visit to Iran as Prime Minister took place in 1999!) I had the honour of serving as the Pakistan ambassador to Iran at the time.

I still remember that most of the conversation between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and former President Khatami at that time related to the possibilities of coordination of the Afghanistan policies of the two countries. Unfortunately, the desire of the two leaders to achieve the required coordination was not fulfilled because of their inability to control the policies of their security agencies. Both Pakistan and Iran, therefore, continued their support to the Taliban and the Northern Alliance respectively till 9/11 when Pakistan was forced to bring about a U-turn under the threat of the American ultimatum.

The clash of the Afghanistan policies of the two countries brought Pakistan-Iran relations to their nadir by July-September, 1998 when the Taliban launched a military offensive leading to the capture of most of northern Afghanistan and the killing of the Iranian Consulate officials in Mazar-e-Sharif. This clash of policies also had the unfortunate effect of pushing Iran closer to India, isolating Pakistan at the regional level, and prolonging the armed conflict in Afghanistan. The instability in Afghanistan enabled Al Qaeda to entrench itself in the country resulting in the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Now that the Americans are in the process of withdrawing their troops from Afghanistan barring a small residual force, it is imperative that Pakistan and Iran avoid their past mistakes and coordinate their policies so that durable peace and stability are restored in Afghanistan and the Afghan people are able to decide their destiny free from external interference.

It is not clear from media reports how much attention was given to the coordination of the Afghanistan policies of the two countries in Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's meetings with the Iranian leaders, particularly President Hassan Rouhani, Supreme Leader Khamenei, and former Iranian President Rafsanjani. Obviously it is in the interests of both Pakistan and Iran that they follow the principles of mutual understanding and mutual accommodation in dealing with the evolving situation in Afghanistan. Both of them have a legitimate interest in having friendly relations and mutually beneficial cooperation with Afghanistan.

It is imperative, therefore, that Iran and Pakistan should not work at cross purposes in Afghanistan. Hopefully, Nawaz Sharif's discussions in Tehran would enable the two sides to understand each other's point of view so that they avoid the mistakes of the past and pursue complementary rather than confrontational policies in post-2014 Afghanistan.

Nawaz Sharif reportedly also assured the Iranian side that Pakistan would not allow its friendship with other countries in the Persian Gulf region to come in the way of the development of friendly relations with Iran. This should have helped in removing any apprehensions that the Iranian leaders may have had about the development of cooperation by Pakistan with the Arab countries of the Gulf region. As for the situation in Syria, we should maintain our traditional policy of refraining from any involvement in intra-Arab disputes.

Pakistan and Iran have enormous possibilities of promoting mutual cooperation in security, economic, commercial, cultural, and technical fields both bilaterally and at the regional level within the framework of the Economic Cooperation Organization. The signing of eight agreements/MOU's on the strengthening of Pakistan-Iran cooperation in various fields during Nawaz Sharif's visit was a welcome development. While the Prime Minister did express the hope for raising the bilateral trade to $5 billion, this target is likely to remain a pipe dream unless specific steps are taken by both sides to exploit the enormous opportunities that exist.

There is considerable scope for Pakistan to increase the export of rice, textiles, fruit, cement, and, in case of a surplus, wheat to Iran. On the other hand, Iran can be an important source of oil, gas, and electricity for Pakistan. Electricity from Iran can be an especially economical means of meeting the requirements of border areas in our Balochistan. During my tenure as the Pakistan ambassador to Iran (1997-2003), an agreement was signed for supplying 25 MW of electricity to Taftan area. Iran has also agreed in principle to supply electricity for Gawadar and the rest of Balochistan. We should take full advantage of these offers. Of course, in enhancing bilateral trade both the countries would have to work out procedures like barter trade arrangements to avoid being hit by the American and EU sanctions imposed on Iran because of its nuclear programme.

Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project right now is perhaps the most important issue in the field of bilateral economic cooperation, which needs to be resolved. As pointed out by Mian Nawaz Sharif in Tehran, this project is in the mutual interest of the two counties. Iran needs markets for its large gas reserves. Pakistan, on the other hand, badly needs gas to meet the rapidly growing requirements of its economy. Gas from Iran is the best possible way of meeting our requirements keeping in view security considerations and the fact that between Iran and Pakistan there is no third country unlike TAPI gas pipeline which would have to go through Afghanistan. While Iran has almost completed the pipeline up to its border with Pakistan, we still have to initiate work on our side of the pipeline.

According to the agreement signed between Pakistan and Iran, we are supposed to complete the pipeline on our side by December, 2014 so as to start the import of Iranian gas, failing which we would have to pay a hefty penalty. The Nawaz Sharif government has not initiated work on the gas pipeline on our side because of financial constraints and the fear of American sanctions. One of the main objectives of Nawaz Sharif's visit to Tehran was to seek the agreement of the Iranian government to a relaxation of the deadline by which we would have to complete the project on our side. It appears from media reports that the Iranian government has shown some flexibility on the issue.

Border security is another sensitive issue which, if not properly handled, can be the source of serious tensions between Iran and Pakistan. Iran has been complaining for quite some time that some Sunni terrorist groups based in our Balochistan province have been carrying out terrorist activities in Iranian Balochistan. Iranian authorities also allege that the activities of these groups have the covert support of some Western intelligence agencies. The kidnapping of Iranian border security guards by Jaish al-Adal earlier this year was the latest example of such terrorist activities. Nawaz Sharif's reported assurance to the Iranian President that miscreants trying to sabotage brotherly relations between the two countries would be dealt with sternly must have been welcomed by the Iranian side.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's recent visit to Tehran has played an important role in building up bridges of trust and understanding between Pakistan and Iran. What is required now is active follow-up action to raise an edifice of close cooperation at bilateral and regional levels on the foundation laid down by the visit.

The writer is a retired ambassador and the president of the Lahore Council for World Affairs.

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