Rising tensions between the neighbors; Pakistan offers diplomacy to Iran
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M. K. Bhadrakumar |

Pakistan has scored a hat-trick. On top of the tensions with India that threaten to cascade any moment, and the bloody border clashes with Afghanistan, Pakistan has now taken on Iran also as its adversary. Hats off to the lucky generals in Rawalpindi! The running theme is once again trans-border terrorism originating from Pakistan, which its neighbors suspect to be state-sponsored in one way or another. Pakistan, of course, is in denial mode.

Iran is not as blunt as India and Afghanistan have been that the terrorist groups are acting with the acquiescence/blessing of the Pakistani security agencies, but lately, Tehran seems to be veering round to the same view.

Simply put, Iran has long suspected that Saudi-backed Sunni terrorist groups are enjoying safe haven in Pakistan. This is, of course, the age-old accusation by India and Afghanistan as well. There has been a particularly bloody incident recently on Iran’s border with Pakistan’s Baluchistan province after which Tehran threatened that it reserved the right to go for the jugular veins of the terrorists in their hideouts inside Pakistan. This is also something that India keeps threatening to do.

Iran estimates that its protests have fallen on deaf years in Islamabad and Rawalpindi. Iran is not as blunt as India and Afghanistan have been that the terrorist groups are acting with the acquiescence/blessing of the Pakistani security agencies, but lately, Tehran seems to be veering round to the same view. Indeed, Tehran’s latest threat to mount military operations inside Pakistan is unusual. The threat has originated at very high levels in the government and armed forces and it suggests that Tehran’s patience is running out.

Read more: Rising Iranian-Pakistani tensions: Is Pakistan’s “house of cards” going to collapse?

The Iran-Saudi relations have touched rock bottom in the recent weeks with Saudi Dy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman talking openly about the likelihood of a war between the two countries, which he said will be fought on Iranian soil

Interestingly, contrary to the earlier practice of the Pakistani generals and the foreign-policy advisor Sartaj Aziz making pious promises of cooperation when Iran gets into an agitated mood, this time around Islamabad has decided to make it the stuff of a diplomatic row. And, to boot it, Islamabad publicized it. That is an extraordinary turn of events. Such megaphone diplomacy towards Iran is exceedingly rare, given Pakistan’s existential fear that Delhi might exploit it to isolate Pakistan in the region. Is Pakistan doing some grandstanding with an eye on Washington and Riyadh? The possibility cannot be ruled out.

Most certainly, there are undercurrents. The Iran-Saudi relations have touched rock bottom in the recent weeks with Saudi Dy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman talking openly about the likelihood of a war between the two countries, which he said will be fought on Iranian soil (here and here). Iran’s suspicion could be that Pakistan is playing its traditional role as the cat’s paw of the Saudi benefactor in lieu of money and oil. Most Sunni terrorist groups are regarded as strategic assets by the Pakistani military. Evidently, the Saudi-backed Sunni terrorists who are undertaking covert operations against Iran fall into this special category of ‘good terrorists’.

Indeed, PM Nawaz Sharif’s close business links with the Saudi regime are well-known to Iran. Tehran has signaled displeasure that the former Pakistani army chief General Raheel Sharif was granted special permission by the government recently to take up the assignment as the commander of the newly-formed Islamic army based in Saudi Arabia, which has a distinct anti-Iran orientation.

Read more: Pakistan conducts proactive engagement with Iran after Raheel Sharif leaves to head Islamic NATO

Iranian FM Mohmmad Javed Zarif made an unannounced visit to Pakistan last Wednesday where he met Sharif and army chief General Bajwa and two days later he paid a day-long visit to Kabul on Sunday.

The Iran-Pakistan tensions at this juncture will cast shadows on the Afghan situation. Interestingly, Iranian FM Mohammad Javed Zarif made an unannounced visit to Pakistan last Wednesday where he met Sharif and army chief General Bajwa and two days later he paid a day-long visit to Kabul on Sunday. Some of Zarif’s statements in Kabul (herehere and here) appeared to be implicit references to Pakistan’s diabolical plans to legitimize Taliban. Zarif’s consultations can also be seen in the context of the return of the old warhorse Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to Kabul on Thursday, which seriously destabilizes the Afghan government. Zarif’s vehement support for the Afghan government would have provoked Islamabad. Just when Pakistan is hoping to undermine the Afghan government, Zarif appears in Kabul to offer a vital lifeline.

No doubt, Tehran keeps in view the ‘big picture’. It has reasons to worry about a likely US-Saudi-Pakistani game plan to inject the Islamic State virus into Iran across its eastern border. The threatening statements directed at Pakistan by the Iranian officials and Zarif’s hurried trip to Kabul – where he met his counterpart as well as, significantly enough, Afghan National Security Advisor Mohammad Hanif Atmar – could only have happened on the basis of hard intelligence available with Tehran that there are new threats to Iran’s national security shaping up from across the country’s eastern border.

Read more: Pakistan Army engagement in the Middle East: Walking a fine line between Saudi Arabia and Iran

All this becomes a serious setback to regional security and stability. It should be food for serious thought for another neighbor of Pakistan – China. It is only with China, amongst its neighboring countries, that Pakistan has managed to maintain friendly relations so far. And, conversely, it is only China which refuses to accuse Pakistan of fomenting cross-border terrorism. Funnily enough, all this is happening almost on the eve of the Belt and Road Forum meeting in Beijing. Not too long ago, China used to fancy that Iran too may join the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. If Beijing’s expectation was that CPEC would have a moderating influence on the Pakistani military’s propensity to use terrorism as an instrument of policy, the contrary seems to be happening.

M. K. Bhadrakumar has served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings as India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes extensively in Indian newspapers, Asia Times and the “Indian Punchline”. This piece was first published in Indian Punchline. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.

M. K. Bhadrakumar has served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings as India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes extensively in Indian newspapers, Asia Times and the “Indian Punchline”.

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