The South Asia Channel

Tilting toward Tehran?

On a day of suicide attacks in Quetta and bomb threats againstPakistani airliners, Ali Akbar Salehi’s September 7 arrival in Islamabad attracted predictably little media attention in Pakistan. For Pakistan’s government, however, his visit was freighted with importance. Salehi, Iran’s foreign minister, was in town for a meeting of thePakistan-Iran Joint Economic Commission (JEC). The ...

By , the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief.
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

On a day of suicide attacks in Quetta and bomb threats againstPakistani airliners, Ali Akbar Salehi’s September 7 arrival in Islamabad attracted predictably little media attention in Pakistan.

For Pakistan’s government, however, his visit was freighted with importance. Salehi, Iran’s foreign minister, was in town for a meeting of thePakistan-Iran Joint Economic Commission (JEC). The two-day talks produced agreements on technical, financial, and media cooperation, with additional steps taken to strengthen cooperation on energy, money laundering, and trade.

This economic summit came on the heels of intensive efforts by Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to reach out to Tehran. He visited Iran in late June for a two-day conference on terrorism, and then returned just a few weeks later. Both times, he was received by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And on both occasions, the rhetoric flowed freely. At the first meeting, Zardari praised Iran as "an important friend and player in the region," noting that bilateral ties "are rooted in historical, cultural, and religious bonds." During the second visit, Khamenei lauded Pakistan for being "a great nation with [a] long and deep background of struggle."  

Shortly after the JEC meeting, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani traveled to Tehran. Talks with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad culminated in outcomes both symbolic (designating Multan and Rashtas sister cities) and substantive (pledging to boost bilateral trade from $1.2to $10 billion — which would approach the $15 billion trade volume Pakistan seeks with China). On September 12, Gilani declared that his and Zardari’s successive visits to Iran underscore the "highest importance"Islamabad places on relations with Tehran.

At first glance, Pakistan’s courtship of Iran is puzzling. The two nations have rarely seen eye to eye in Afghanistan; Tehran has sided with the Northern Alliance and other anti-Taliban elements of the population (particularly Shia Hazaras), while Islamabad was once one of the fewnations to accord the Taliban full diplomatic recognition. Iran has also enjoyed a legacy of strong relations with India. Baluchistan province in Pakistan has long served as a sanctuary for Jundullah, an Iranian Baluch militant organization that Washington designates as a terrorist group and regularly attacks Iran’s government and military. Perhaps most importantly, Shia Iran is regional rivals with Sunni Saudi Arabia, one of Pakistan’s most crucial allies.

However, the strategic sands in South Asia have begun to shift, creating new opportunities for Pakistan and Iran. The latter’s view of the Afghan Taliban has softened, with some observers arguing that Tehran now perceives it less as a virulent Wahhabi Sunni threat, and more as a welcome anti-imperialist group that shares Iran’s strong desire to expunge America’s military footprint in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, India’s relations with Iran have taken a tumble. Several times in recent years, India has backed American positions on U.N. Security Council resolutions and International Atomic Energy Agency votes on Iran’s nuclear program and human rights violations. Additionally, tighter international sanctions against Tehran have undercut India-Iran energy relations, a pillar of the bilateral relationship. India used to pay Tehran for crude imports through an opaque "clearing house" system, yet last December the sanctions prompted India to renounce this method and to request a more transparent arrangement. Tehran refused, and in July briefly suspended crude supplies to New Delhi. India immediately turned to Riyadh, concluding a deal this past summer that provided Indians with 3 million barrels of Saudi crude in August — and sparked talk of a potential "strategic energy partnership" that could yield a 30-year oil supply contract.

Against this backdrop, Islamabad’s diplomatic forays into Tehran can be seen as both politically and strategically driven. On the one hand, at a time of strained relations with Washington, Pakistan’s government undoubtedly relishes the opportunity to thumb its nose at America by embracing what the latter regards as a pariah state. Pakistan may also wish to capitalize on Iran’s pro-Pakistan gestures over the last year. These include the withering criticism Khamenei has directed at India’s policies in Jammu and Kashmir, and the flood relief aid furnished byIran since last summer (Iran recently vowed to provide support to internally displaced persons (IDPs) until they are "completely rehabilitated").

Strategically speaking, deeper ties with Iran can enhance electricity-starved Pakistan’s energy security. Islamabad is well aware that construction of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline has not begun, and has underscored its desire to expedite the construction of a pipeline with Iran — which could be operational by 2015. The project is slated to provide 750 million cubic feet of natural gas toPakistan daily, and its power generation capacity is expected to approach 5,000 megawatts — roughly equivalent to Pakistan’s energy shortfall.

Furthermore, Pakistan badly needs allies in its efforts to forge a regional stability arrangement amenable to Pakistani interests, and it sees Iran as a key collaborator in formulating a political solution to the Afghanistan imbroglio.

It would be a mistake, however, to read these developments as the portent of a new strategic partnership. Pakistan’s vital relationship with Saudi Arabia–undergirded by five decades of intelligence-sharing, military cooperation, and deep mutual trust — precludes any such possibility. So does the House of Saud’s largesse. According to the Center for Global Development, Riyadh’s average annual grant assistance to Pakistan between 2004 and 2009 totaled nearly $140 million — more than any other country aside from the United States. And the U.N. reported last November that the Saudis had provided $100 million in aid to deal withlast year’s crippling floods — again, more than any nation save America at the time.

The Pakistan-Saudi partnership has stayed strong even amid the geopolitically volatile Arab Spring. Recall how Pakistani organizations likely tied to the state dispatched security forces to Bahrain to help the Saudi-allied Sunni regime suppress anti-government protestors — members of the country’s Shia majority whose demonstrations have drawn strong support from Tehran. According to Al JazeeraEnglish, "at least 2500" former Pakistani servicemen deployed to Manama this spring, enlarging Bahrain’s riot police and national guard by about 50 percent.Pakistan’s decision reportedly prompted an infuriated Tehran to summon a high-level Iran-based Pakistani diplomat for an explanation.

Predictably, Zardari boarded a plane to Saudi Arabia soon after his return from Iran in July. His visit was billed as an effort to reduce tensions between Tehran and Riyadh, though it was likely also meant to assuage Riyadh’s concerns about Pakistan’s Iranian embrace. And if there was any lingering doubt about Pakistan’s determination to smooth ruffled Saudi feathers, Gilani followed up with his own trip — with the explicit objective of getting ties back on track. Predictably, he emerged from his meetings gushing rhetoric about the renewal of the partnership. Then, late last month, Riyadh committed 10 billion rupees (justover $114 million) to help repatriate IDPs in Pakistan’s tribal areas, a gesture that Pakistani media identified as another sign of a revitalized relationship. And just a few days later, Riyadh officially endorsed the Taliban reconciliation process that Islamabad fervently supports. Tehran has not followed suit.

Tellingly, while Islamabad has soothed Riyadh,it has acted cautiously toward  Tehran in recent days — in deference to Saudi Arabia, but perhaps also to America. At the JEC meeting, Pakistan, "fearing the consequences" of international sanctions, demurred when Iran offered to help construct the Pakistan portion of the Iran-Pakistan pipeline. And Pakistani media reports now speculate that Washington may succeed in persuading Pakistan to abandon the pipeline altogether.

Foreign Minister Salehi and his delegation may have arrived in Pakistan last week laden with gifts and offerings, with Gilani impressively calling on Tehran barely 72 hours later. Yet at the end of the day, the Iranians will continue to play second fiddle to Saudi Arabia in Pakistan’s strategic calculus.

MichaelKugelman is the South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Centerfor Scholars. michael.kugelman@wilsoncenter.org

On a day of suicide attacks in Quetta and bomb threats againstPakistani airliners, Ali Akbar Salehi’s September 7 arrival in Islamabad attracted predictably little media attention in Pakistan.

For Pakistan’s government, however, his visit was freighted with importance. Salehi, Iran’s foreign minister, was in town for a meeting of thePakistan-Iran Joint Economic Commission (JEC). The two-day talks produced agreements on technical, financial, and media cooperation, with additional steps taken to strengthen cooperation on energy, money laundering, and trade.

This economic summit came on the heels of intensive efforts by Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to reach out to Tehran. He visited Iran in late June for a two-day conference on terrorism, and then returned just a few weeks later. Both times, he was received by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And on both occasions, the rhetoric flowed freely. At the first meeting, Zardari praised Iran as "an important friend and player in the region," noting that bilateral ties "are rooted in historical, cultural, and religious bonds." During the second visit, Khamenei lauded Pakistan for being "a great nation with [a] long and deep background of struggle."  

Shortly after the JEC meeting, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani traveled to Tehran. Talks with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad culminated in outcomes both symbolic (designating Multan and Rashtas sister cities) and substantive (pledging to boost bilateral trade from $1.2to $10 billion — which would approach the $15 billion trade volume Pakistan seeks with China). On September 12, Gilani declared that his and Zardari’s successive visits to Iran underscore the "highest importance"Islamabad places on relations with Tehran.

At first glance, Pakistan’s courtship of Iran is puzzling. The two nations have rarely seen eye to eye in Afghanistan; Tehran has sided with the Northern Alliance and other anti-Taliban elements of the population (particularly Shia Hazaras), while Islamabad was once one of the fewnations to accord the Taliban full diplomatic recognition. Iran has also enjoyed a legacy of strong relations with India. Baluchistan province in Pakistan has long served as a sanctuary for Jundullah, an Iranian Baluch militant organization that Washington designates as a terrorist group and regularly attacks Iran’s government and military. Perhaps most importantly, Shia Iran is regional rivals with Sunni Saudi Arabia, one of Pakistan’s most crucial allies.

However, the strategic sands in South Asia have begun to shift, creating new opportunities for Pakistan and Iran. The latter’s view of the Afghan Taliban has softened, with some observers arguing that Tehran now perceives it less as a virulent Wahhabi Sunni threat, and more as a welcome anti-imperialist group that shares Iran’s strong desire to expunge America’s military footprint in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, India’s relations with Iran have taken a tumble. Several times in recent years, India has backed American positions on U.N. Security Council resolutions and International Atomic Energy Agency votes on Iran’s nuclear program and human rights violations. Additionally, tighter international sanctions against Tehran have undercut India-Iran energy relations, a pillar of the bilateral relationship. India used to pay Tehran for crude imports through an opaque "clearing house" system, yet last December the sanctions prompted India to renounce this method and to request a more transparent arrangement. Tehran refused, and in July briefly suspended crude supplies to New Delhi. India immediately turned to Riyadh, concluding a deal this past summer that provided Indians with 3 million barrels of Saudi crude in August — and sparked talk of a potential "strategic energy partnership" that could yield a 30-year oil supply contract.

Against this backdrop, Islamabad’s diplomatic forays into Tehran can be seen as both politically and strategically driven. On the one hand, at a time of strained relations with Washington, Pakistan’s government undoubtedly relishes the opportunity to thumb its nose at America by embracing what the latter regards as a pariah state. Pakistan may also wish to capitalize on Iran’s pro-Pakistan gestures over the last year. These include the withering criticism Khamenei has directed at India’s policies in Jammu and Kashmir, and the flood relief aid furnished byIran since last summer (Iran recently vowed to provide support to internally displaced persons (IDPs) until they are "completely rehabilitated").

Strategically speaking, deeper ties with Iran can enhance electricity-starved Pakistan’s energy security. Islamabad is well aware that construction of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline has not begun, and has underscored its desire to expedite the construction of a pipeline with Iran — which could be operational by 2015. The project is slated to provide 750 million cubic feet of natural gas toPakistan daily, and its power generation capacity is expected to approach 5,000 megawatts — roughly equivalent to Pakistan’s energy shortfall.

Furthermore, Pakistan badly needs allies in its efforts to forge a regional stability arrangement amenable to Pakistani interests, and it sees Iran as a key collaborator in formulating a political solution to the Afghanistan imbroglio.

It would be a mistake, however, to read these developments as the portent of a new strategic partnership. Pakistan’s vital relationship with Saudi Arabia–undergirded by five decades of intelligence-sharing, military cooperation, and deep mutual trust — precludes any such possibility. So does the House of Saud’s largesse. According to the Center for Global Development, Riyadh’s average annual grant assistance to Pakistan between 2004 and 2009 totaled nearly $140 million — more than any other country aside from the United States. And the U.N. reported last November that the Saudis had provided $100 million in aid to deal withlast year’s crippling floods — again, more than any nation save America at the time.

The Pakistan-Saudi partnership has stayed strong even amid the geopolitically volatile Arab Spring. Recall how Pakistani organizations likely tied to the state dispatched security forces to Bahrain to help the Saudi-allied Sunni regime suppress anti-government protestors — members of the country’s Shia majority whose demonstrations have drawn strong support from Tehran. According to Al JazeeraEnglish, "at least 2500" former Pakistani servicemen deployed to Manama this spring, enlarging Bahrain’s riot police and national guard by about 50 percent.Pakistan’s decision reportedly prompted an infuriated Tehran to summon a high-level Iran-based Pakistani diplomat for an explanation.

Predictably, Zardari boarded a plane to Saudi Arabia soon after his return from Iran in July. His visit was billed as an effort to reduce tensions between Tehran and Riyadh, though it was likely also meant to assuage Riyadh’s concerns about Pakistan’s Iranian embrace. And if there was any lingering doubt about Pakistan’s determination to smooth ruffled Saudi feathers, Gilani followed up with his own trip — with the explicit objective of getting ties back on track. Predictably, he emerged from his meetings gushing rhetoric about the renewal of the partnership. Then, late last month, Riyadh committed 10 billion rupees (justover $114 million) to help repatriate IDPs in Pakistan’s tribal areas, a gesture that Pakistani media identified as another sign of a revitalized relationship. And just a few days later, Riyadh officially endorsed the Taliban reconciliation process that Islamabad fervently supports. Tehran has not followed suit.

Tellingly, while Islamabad has soothed Riyadh,it has acted cautiously toward  Tehran in recent days — in deference to Saudi Arabia, but perhaps also to America. At the JEC meeting, Pakistan, "fearing the consequences" of international sanctions, demurred when Iran offered to help construct the Pakistan portion of the Iran-Pakistan pipeline. And Pakistani media reports now speculate that Washington may succeed in persuading Pakistan to abandon the pipeline altogether.

Foreign Minister Salehi and his delegation may have arrived in Pakistan last week laden with gifts and offerings, with Gilani impressively calling on Tehran barely 72 hours later. Yet at the end of the day, the Iranians will continue to play second fiddle to Saudi Arabia in Pakistan’s strategic calculus.

MichaelKugelman is the South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Centerfor Scholars. michael.kugelman@wilsoncenter.org

Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman

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