Pakistan-Iran relations – Ayesha Siddiqa



Posts by some militant outfits on social media about Iran indicate the presence of an ideological lobby inside Pakistan, which opposes improvement of bilateral relations between the neighbours. It also gives an impression that the matter is nothing, but an ideological confrontation. But was this always the case?

Though the literature by the Pakistan military appears silent on both Saudi Arabia and Iran, Tehran was once a significant capital that ensured Pakistan’s security. Generals like Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, Nur Khan and others appreciated Iran’s worth for Pakistan. There is enough evidence that speaks volumes about Iran’s centrality for Pakistan’s security, especially up until the late 1970s. The Shah of Iran had provided material help to Pakistan during the latter’s 1965 war with India and was looked upon to admonish New Delhi for any adventurism. In 1969, Pakistan celebrated the Iranian monarchy and Iran celebrated Pakistan Day. The then governor of Sindh, Vice Admiral, SM Ahsan, stated: “Pakistan and Iran are twin brothers.” Did all of this change during Ziaul Haq’s decade in power and just because of a particular religious ideology?

Indubitably, Zia’s era had a major role to play. The rise of the jihad culture changed Pakistan’s socio-political dynamics. One of the important milestones in our history is the creation of the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan that was encouraged and later established in the 1980s, not just to fight the jihad in Afghanistan, but also to start a sectarian conflict in Pakistan. Zia was uncomfortable with those sects in Pakistan which were resisting his Islamic laws, especially as these affected them. The Iranian Revolution in January 1979 made Pakistanis belonging to these sects overconfident about pursuing their ideology and challenging Zia’s laws. The state resisted harshly. By the mid to late 1980s, there were enough forces present to punish people based on their sectarian identity, for instance, for demanding a separate curriculum in their schools in Gilgit-Baltistan (G-B). That a lashkar went to G-B, which was involved in sectarian violence, is a fact of history. Many of the lashkaris settled in G-B to change the environment permanently. This was the typical reaction of a security establishment, which is sensitive to internal challenges and deals with these heavy-handedly — be it in East Bengal, Balochistan, G-B or Okara.

But in 1979, the Pakistan-Iran relationship was not yet confrontational. In fact, for the military regime’s Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) partners, the Iranian Revolution reflected Maulana Maududi’s political philosophy, which certainly had an impact on Iran’s revolutionary leadership. In 1978, Zia’s minister JI’s Khurshid Ahmad insisted on meeting Ayatollah Khomeini in Paris whom he finally met on January 14, 1979. It seems that the flow of American money then changed everyone who had established a jihad shop for Afghanistan.

However, Pakistan’s state remained ambiguous towards Iran, which it considered the source of an internal irritant, yet a ‘brotherly Islamic state’, whose military arm ought to be strengthened. The transfer of nuclear know-how, which is a recorded fact, was the brainchild of the generals’ ambitions to counter the US by propping up forces that would counter American hegemony in the region. Islamabad also helped Tehran in missile and other technology transfers from China. Even as late as 2002, a senior general of Pervez Musharraf’s team warned a high-level visitor from Iran about Pakistan and Iran’s common threat, the US, and that it would target Pakistan’s nuclear programme after it is done with Iran.

The two decades of militancy certainly had an impact, but a more critical role was played by how Pakistan’s strategic masters envisioned regional geopolitics in which Pakistan had a central role to play. It certainly had no place for other states, such as Iran, challenging Rawalpindi’s control in its sphere of interest, like in Afghanistan. Having given favours like transferring nuclear know-how, Iran was expected to conceding to respect Pakistan’s strategic ambitions. Tehran’s intervention in Afghanistan irritated Rawalpindi. In the late 1990s, I remember naval officers cribbing about Iran being undependable.

Perhaps, the shift in Iran-Pakistan relations was inevitable given the changes in Pakistan’s strategic depth vision that evolved during the mid-1970s, relying more on its own capacity than other states. By the early 1990s, from Islamabad’s perspective, roles had reversed. In any case, Islamabad saw the Shah embroiled in his own battle with Iraq on the Shatt-al-Arab and not on the same page with Pakistan. The Shah himself was disillusioned with an ally, which was focused more on its battles with India than helping Tehran add to its geopolitical strength. In any case, Iran’s 1979 revolution and confrontation with the US made it totally unusable from Pakistan’s strategic perspective.

In the 1970s, Pakistan began to develop two key components to gain military strength — proxies and nuclear deterrence. The proxies were used aggressively in Afghanistan and then elsewhere. The security establishment was inspired by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s vision of finding a central place in geopolitics of the Muslim world. Pakistan would not make the mistake of not developing military capacity, which the Shah lacked to fill the strategic gap created due to withdrawal of British forces from the region. The Beg-Gul doctrine of the 1990s enunciated Pakistan’s role in filling the gap created by perceived withdrawal of the US and other forces from the Middle East. The strategy highlighted both proxies and nuclear weapons as the military’s strength.

The proxies came with an expensive ideological baggage. The murder of an Iranian diplomat in 1991 was part of the high cost, which the state was willing to pay. This was a rare case in which evidence was available to punish the killer, who was eventually freed in 2011.

Nuclear deterrence, on the other hand, boosted Pakistan’s confidence regarding its role as defender of the Muslim world. Thus, the GHQ’s disappointment over Iran’s role in Afghanistan and it building ties with India, all of which went against Pakistan’s vision.

Today, the poor state of the road from Quetta to the Sistan border underscores Iran’s marginal relevance for Pakistan. Iran, which was once Pakistan’s major trading partner, has little economic role. The American embargo, the power of internal ideological partners and the regional power games have changed the ties to a degree that they will not improve without a major shift in thinking.