Iran and Pakistan relations after Ebrahim Raisi

Pakistan and Iran have much in common that needs to be explored and utilized in all domains, especially economic and strategic

 Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign minister Amir Abdollahian’s death in a helicopter crash is being mourned in Pakistan as well Iran, two neighboring countries with close relations. This was shocking for many in Pakistan because of the close relations and also because this news came at a point where Raisi paid a visit to Islamabad last month in May, to improve relations that were thought to be under strain after recent border skirmishes. 

Raisi’s recent visit to Pakistan came at a crucial point in the backdrop of regional dynamics. Iran is facing various political pressures domestically as well as internationally. Recent terror wave, missile strikes with Israel, domestic and international pressures, conflicts with the neighbors and sanctioned economy have taken a toll on Iran’s strategic outlook. Iran’s neighbor, Pakistan, too faces multiple challenges; increasing terrorist attacks, strained relations with Afghanistan over terrorism, aggressive posturing from Modi government in India and fragile economy with aggravating inflation rate and energy crisis. These common issues have brought Iran and Pakistan closer to seek avenues for cooperation which can potentially address mutual security, economic and geo-political concerns. 

Raisi’s visit was important and timely. Political observers saw it as an attempt to improve and mend ties with Pakistan after recent skirmishes which saw missile strikes from both sides citing terror outfits operating in respective countries. Another perspective behind Raisi’s visit was the pressure that Iran is facing internationally, especially after its recent rift with Israel. 

Regionally, Iran is attempting to attract alliances and keep any political stalemates at bay. It’s détente with Saudi-Arabia is an example of how Iran is trying to avoid political deadlocks and continue with its strategic goals. It is important to observe that Iran’s relations with China have strengthened over the years, with China’s promising investment of $400 billion over the span of 25-years, a cooperation agreement signed in 2021. This has given Iran a new strategic outlook. Raisi’s visit to Pakistan came in this backdrop; to explore new avenues for cooperation and to address the irritants in the relationship. Pakistan, while observing the regional changes, believes that Iran is a neighbor that needs to be engaged positively. 

Pakistan and Iran share approximately 562 miles of border which tends to provide trade potential but is also marred by security issues. The border tensions aren’t new and have their roots in history as well as recent past, however, there is much in common that needs to be explored. Both sides have deep cultural roots, as Pakistan is believed to host largest Shia population outside of Iran, this provides Iran with significant cultural and religious affiliation and roots into Pakistani society and culture. Pakistan too is a powerful and the only nuclear armed state in the larger Muslim world, bordering Iran. This gives Pakistan an exceptional strategic space in larger Iranian, as well as regional, geo-politics. 

Pakistan and Iran relations are generally peaceful with no major setbacks or fractures. However, terrorism is an irritant in the relationship which undermines security of both states and the regional security at large. Terrorism, and overall security environment, is one of the crucial aspects in the bilateral relations; notorious terrorist outfits like Islamic state of Khorasan (ISKP), Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan(TTP), Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) and several other terrorist groups continue to target civilian population. 

Last few years have been deadliest in decades for Pakistan as well as Iran. In year 2023, 1000 Pakistanis lost their lives to terrorism. In march 2024, Pakistan’s Gwadar port was attacked. A wave of terrorist attacks increased significantly on both sides. These attacks have undermined the overall security situation in both countries. Iran continues to grapple with the Jaish-al-Adl terrorist outfit that it believes operates from Pakistan. Pakistan also believes that Baloch terrorist groups like Baloch Liberation Army, BLA, and others are part of a terrorist network based in Iran. Nonetheless, the discourse of terror networks continues to be highlighted. A common threat for both Iran and Pakistan are the ISKP; a terror group that operates in the region with scattered presence in Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

ISKP is one the deadliest terrorist outfits that has targeted civilians as well as security officials across the board in the region. This year in January ISIS targeted Iran, claiming the lives of 100 people. It’s offshoots are many and dispersed over difficult terrains in the wider Pak-Iran-Afghan region. Consequently, Pakistan and Iran find themselves in a situation that is dangerous and undermines the collective security environment of the region. 

The terror wave has curbed the prospects for peace, trade and people to people interaction. For instance, Pakistan’s Balochistan region is marred by terrorist outfits that continue to target Chinese officials, Pakistani security officials and many Pakistanis who come from other regions to work in Balochistan. In addition to this, Pakistani pilgrims travelling to Iran have also been targeted. 

The overall security environment seems bleak, plus security is likely to remain a key irritant between Pakistan and Iran unless proper security mechanisms are made. For the moment there are agreements at the policy level that terrorist networks need to be curbed and addressed, however, a proper mechanism seems to be lacking on both sides. A proper apparatus would include timely intelligence sharing, shared border patrolling, people-oriented security infrastructure that can curb the threat of any attack. Local population and its support for counter-terrorism efforts is at the core of all policy regarding security. It is suggested that governments on both sides must invest more in people to support the bottom-up security approach. Nonetheless, the issue of terrorism is complex and multi-layered as it is linked with smuggling, foreign funding, drugs and lack of security mechanism on both sides. This needs to be addressed at tactical and policy level for better coordination. 

Beyond security, there are several other issue areas between Pakistan and Iran. Economic integration remains at the top. Much has been speculated about the bilateral trade, however, there are multiple areas where Pakistan and Iran lack integration and need special emphasis. For instances, prime minster Shahbaz Sharif and Iranian President Raisi inaugurated first border market at Mand-Pishin border crossing at the Pakistan-Iran border in 2023. This certainly was a step forward at realizing that Pakistan and Iran have a great potential for trade. Estimated bilateral trade volume can reach somewhere around $10 billion which is currently $ 2 billion. Still, this is the first trade point that will be followed by five more border markets. Nevertheless, the market still lacks state of the art infrastructure, business linked amenities, market focused trade and business facilities that can support the potential for trade originally envisaged. 

Moreover, smuggling still remains one of the key areas that hampers formal trade and potential for business. One of the many reasons to this issue is that the government facilitated trade markets at the border crossings are a recent phenomenon as compared to the informal trade that has been going on between Pakistan and Iran. This has much to do with the local border-oriented trade culture that has been in practice for decades, rather centuries. More or less similar is the case with the areas that border Pakistan and Afghanistan. The question there is not entirely the same but comparable to Pakistan-Iran border. Therefore, a comprehensive mechanism that can link the Iranian and Pakistan market in fact lacks proper groundwork and comprehensive economic strategy from both sides. 

Another area that lacks proper economic strategy is that there is a perception that policies made at official level have limited input from the business community itself. The commercial routes, economic zones, border markets must be chalked around a rigorous, and well thought over, trade strategy seeking substantial input from the trade community. Any initiative that sidesteps the business community, additionally facing bureaucratic hurdles, would shake the desired economic goals. 

Finally, the elephant in the room is the international sanctions on Iran that hinder tremendous business potential between Iran and Pakistan. Resultantly, Pakistani banks, business firms and other financial institutions have become increasingly reluctant in doing business with the Iranian side. Similarly, the stalled Iran-Pakistan pipeline is also thought to have fallen prey to the international sanctions and pressure. It would be prudent for the international community and United States policy circles to encourage regional trade which will ultimately benefit international community’s interests. A peaceful and economically thriving region is in everyone’s interest. Pakistan and Iran have much in common that needs to be explored and utilized in all domains, especially economic and strategic. 

Much is being speculated about Iran’s foreign policy after Raisi. It can be assumed that not much is likely to change in Iran’s foreign policy approach or its general foreign policy conduct. Iran’s foreign policy regarding neighbors is likely to continue the same way; amicable and positive. Late Raisi’s attempt to improve relations with Pakistan would be remembered as a positive step in the right direction for bilateral relations and regional peace. 

Dr. Taimur Shamil holds a PhD in International Relations. He is an academic based in New York. He tweets @ShamilTaimur

ePaper - Nawaiwaqt