Foreign policy paradigm shift
Prime Minister (PM) Yousaf Raza Gilani’s visit to Iran signals, as he himself put it in a meeting with Iranian President Mehmoud Ahmedinejad, a paradigm shift in Pakistan’s foreign policy. Pakistan, the PM added, wanted to maintain close relations with its neighbours and Iran was one of the countries with which it would like to have very close relations. The ‘shift’ referred to may be seen as disillusionment with excessive reliance on the US or the west, traditionally Islamabad’s preferred partners, and a ‘return’ to seeking regional cooperation, particularly in the emerging scenario post-withdrawal of the bulk of US and Nato forces from Afghanistan. One should also bear in mind the present atmosphere of mutual mistrust and suspicion between Islamabad and Washington.
The bilateral relationship between Pakistan and Iran is sought to be strengthened in the areas of trade, economic cooperation, security and intelligence sharing. For example, bilateral trade, currently at $ 1.2 billion, of which Pakistan’s exports to Iran are at a paltry $ 200 million, would be boosted to $ 10 billion. The controversial (in US eyes) gas pipeline and import of 1,000 MW electricity from Iran would be expedited. The gas pipeline in particular, which was originally intended to transit Pakistan to India but has been reduced to a bilateral project after New Delhi withdrew, some say on Washington’s urging, has been a thorn in the side of the US because of its open hostility to the regime in Tehran. If the two neighbouring countries go ahead with this project, as now seems increasingly likely, it will not only bolster Pakistan’s energy needs, it will also indicate that Ahmedinejad’s preference for rooting out foreign influence from the region has been taken on board by Pakistan. In the context of trade and economic cooperation, it stands to reason that the two sides will have to improve communication and transport links, in particular road, rail and air traffic. Two committees have been set up for the new enhanced cooperation, jointly chaired by the foreign ministers and interior ministers of the two countries. The latter committee has been charged with the task of satisfying Tehran vis-à-vis security on the Balochistan-Seistan border, implying a closer watch on the Baloch Jundullah group’s activities. This group has been attacking Iranian security forces inside Iranian Balochistan in the past, and is widely considered a shady and controversial element because of its alleged ties to (some say) both al Qaeda and US intelligence.
The PM appreciated Iran’s offer of $ 100 million for flood relief and reports say Iran has already dispatched two planeloads of relief goods. President Ahmedinejad in turn wished for greater people-to-people contacts, cultural cooperation, and promised sympathetic consideration of Pakistan’s request for opening a consulate in Bandar Abbas. Iran, he said, was interested in importing wheat, vegetables, fruit and other items from Pakistan. He argued the need for a new world order in which the historical underdevelopment of countries like Pakistan and Iran could be combated and the policies of the developed world that kept them in such straits resisted.
On arguably the most vexed foreign policy issue for the region, PM Gilani said Pakistan supported an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned reconciliation and peace process. He asserted that Pakistan was part of the solution for Afghanistan’s woes, not part of the problem. It is good that the PM clarified his government’s position on this problematic issue, since it distances the civilian democratic government from the military’s hobbyhorse of ‘strategic depth’. On relations with the US, the PM reiterated Islamabad’s position that unilateral actions of the sort that killed Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil were unacceptable. If Washington has intelligence, it must share it with the Pakistani authorities and leave it to them to act on it. He also repeated the stricture against drone attacks on Pakistani soil, arguing that they were counter-productive.
The new energy in Pakistan-Iran relations is of a piece with the tectonic power shifts taking place in the region as the Afghan endgame approaches. The countries of the region are waking up to the post-withdrawal scenario, in which they will have to manage the fallout of war-torn Afghanistan’s transition to hopefully peace and rehabilitation. As its two closest neighbours, with historic cultural, religious and other ties, Pakistan and Iran are uniquely placed to assist the transition looming, as well as ensure it takes a healthy and acceptable path for the Afghan people, as much as its neighbours.