Monday, May 12, 2014

Daily Times Editorial May 12, 2014

A peaceful neighbourhood Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif left for Tehran on Sunday on a two-day visit being seen as an important step in building trust with our neighbour Iran. The visit follows visits to Tehran by the Prime Minister’s Advisor on National Security and Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz and Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry and to Islamabad by Iranian Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani-Fazli. These exchanges have laid out the agenda for the prime minister’s visit and issues between Islamabad and Tehran at a bilateral, regional and international level. This will be the first interaction of the new leaderships of both countries, including the prime minister’s meetings with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It cannot be denied that whereas there are many positive aspects of the agenda for discussion between the two sides such as enhanced economic ties, increased bilateral trade through improved physical connectivity such as roads, rail and communications, etc, there are also issues that have in recent years cast a shadow over the relationship. Three issues in particular are well known to be the source of potential friction, whereas one is unstated. The known irritants are the Iran-Pakistan (IP) gas pipeline, border security and Tehran’s perceived unhappiness with Islamabad’s close embrace of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. The Saudi issue in particular is very sensitive since there is by now an open rivalry between Tehran and Riyadh for influence in the region. The IP project has been completed until the Iranian side of the border, and was inaugurated by former President Asif Zardari in the dying days of the PPP-led government. The successor PML-N government has been dragging its feet on starting, let alone completing, its leg of the IP pipeline, quoting various obstacles for its hesitation. Finances and possible US/western sanctions figure prominently in the PML-N government’s reluctance to complete what is obviously an important project for energy-starved Pakistan. Its foot dragging faces the looming prospect of fines amounting to $ three million a day if it fails to complete its side of the pipeline before the contractual deadline of December 2014, which looks increasingly undoable. The prime minister will likely ask his Iranian interlocutors to waive this punitive provision. Border security issues revolve around the activities of Iranian groups such as Jundullah, an Iranian Baloch opposition movement considered responsible for attacks on, and the kidnapping of, Iranian border guards. Tehran accuses Pakistan of turning a blind eye (if not harbouring on its soil) to the activities of such hostile groups. Pakistan denies responsibility or collusion, pleading the case for the border area being poorly policed. The summit is expected to yield agreements for enhancing mutual cooperation on this issue between the two countries. The Gulf, broader Middle East and further abroad has been the proxy battleground for the Shia-Sunni rivalry being played out with Saudi Arabia and countries like Bahrain tilting against Iran. Pakistan declares it is neutral in this conflict, even offering to mediate between Tehran and Riyadh during Sartaj Aziz’s Tehran visit, but the offer seems to have been politely declined by Iran. It is hardly a secret that Islamabad’s desired balance in ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran faces an uphill struggle, given Islamabad’s closeness with the kingdom and its relative distance from Iran. Last but not least, Iran’s unexpressed (at least publicly) resentment at the slow but steady and unremitting genocide of Shias in Pakistan over some decades could prove a major stumbling block in overcoming the trust deficit between the two countries and casting relations along a more positive path. Pakistan needs peace within and peace with its neighbours to extricate itself from the crisis that has the country in its grip. Currently, at various levels of intensity, it cannot be pretended that Pakistan enjoys close and friction-free relations with any of its three neighbours, Iran, Afghanistan and India. The latter two may be tougher nuts to crack, given interventionist postures and history respectively, but there does not appear to be any insurmountable obstacle to putting Tehran’s reservations about Islamabad’s policies at rest and putting bilateral ties on at least an even keel. This could yield bilateral, regional and international dividends that so far seem unexplored.

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