Neither is the Ashraf Ghani regime in Kabul a Shia-centric dispensation, nor does India have a commonality of religious denomination. Yet both inspire more trust among Iranians
As a nation, Pakistan has had a historically unsettled and restive relationship with all three neighbouring countries that touch its land borders ie, India, Afghanistan and Iran. However, recently, Prime Minister Imran Khan took his national obsession with the “borders” of other countries to another level of imagination when he waxed eloquently to a befuddled audience in Iran, “Germany and Japan killed millions of their civilians until after the second World War when they both decided to have joint industries on their border regions!” Imran Khan’s political nemesis Bilawal Bhutto soon tweeted a stinging, “Our Prime Minister thinks that Germany and Japan share a border. How embarrassing, this is what happens when you @UniofOxford let people in just because they can play cricket”. Beyond the obvious embarrassment emanating from such “deliveries”, the former cricketer-turned-politician returned back to Islamabad from a lukewarm trip to Iran, which refused to offer any strategic succour or sound-bite that could thaw the Pakistan-Iran coldness, beyond diplomatic courtesies and officialese.
The backdrop to the recent visit by the Pakistani Prime Minister to its Western neighbour, Iran, came at a most unpropitious phase of acute mutual suspicions, with both nations having recently accused each other of having allowed “terrorists” to operate and attack the other country. Few weeks back, Pakistan had pointedly blamed Iranian-based “terror outfits” for a deadly bus jacking incident on the coastal highway, wherein the “terrorists” entered a bus and identified passengers on the basis of their IDs and then killed 10 of them who served with the Pakistani Navy, Air Force and the Coast Guard.
Earlier, Iran had unequivocally blamed Pakistan for harbouring Sunni jihadist group Jaish ul-Adl (Army of Justice), who had killed 27 members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the Sistan-Baluchistan region of Iran. The undeniable undercurrents of sectarian rift have beset the Iran-Pakistan narrative, with Islamabad increasingly relying on the Saudi bloc, much to the chagrin of the Shia-centric sensibilities of the Iranian identity. The umbilical cord of Pakistan with the Saudis has got strengthened with the life-sustaining financial bailout afforded by the Saudis and the Emiratis — besides the appointment of former Pakistani Chief of Army Staff, General Raheel Sharif, as the head of 41-nation (Sunni ruled), Riyadh-based, Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition, that is at the forefront of battling Iran-supported Houthi rebels in Yemen. Pakistan’s own fractious societal divide that pits its vulnerable “minority” of Shia Muslims at the hands of the supremacist and extremist groups — for example, the recent terror attack on the Hazara Shias that killed over 20 — is a matter of perennial and irreconcilable distrust between Pakistan and Iran.
Recognising the sectarian angularity, Imran Khan went with a retinue of Shia Ministers, like the Minister for Human Rights, Dr Shireen Mazari and Minister for Maritime Affairs, Syed Ali Haider Zaidi. The Pakistani delegation’s port of disembarkation was not the capital Tehran but a symbolic first stopover at the historical town of Mashad, where Imran Khan paid obeisance at the holy shrine of Imam Reza, the eighth Shia Imam, before proceeding to Tehran. Post the symbolism, Imran Khan began his maiden visit with a laborious endeavour to explain the ostensible Pakistani commitment towards fighting “terrorism”, besides common pain-points of smuggling narcotics, human trafficking, hostage taking, money laundering and abduction.
However, both sides had extended agenda and pet peeves with Iran euphemistically alluding to the US as the “enemy” blocking regional peace; whereas Pakistan unwarrantedly dragged Jammu & Kashmir into the bilateral discussions in a desperate attempt to elicit some expression of interest or text, only to draw a studied silence. Iran, which has its own strategic convergence and understanding with Delhi on many fronts, including that on the Chabahar port, Afghanistan, oil exploration and supplies among others, did not take the Pakistani bait. Under pressure from the more experienced Iranians, Imran Khan made yet another amateurish move by confessing the obvious, “We have come to the conclusion, we will not allow any militant group to operate from Pakistan.” Expectedly, Imran Khan was roasted at home, with the Opposition parties referring to the same as an unpardonable admission of complicity and guilt, especially when the International Monetary Fund was linking the much-needed bailout package to the findings of Pakistani guilt via the Financial Action Task Force (FATF).
It will take the Pakistani leadership more than charm offensives and half-meant confessions to overcome its deep-rooted perceptions in Delhi, Kabul or even Tehran. Rote and banal attempts by Islamabad to invoke the line of “brother Muslim country” have so far failed the Ashraf Ghani regime in Afghanistan and Iranians, who keep a hawk eye on the growing Saudi-Wahhabi influence and control of the Pakistani establishment. The delicately placed chessboard of institutional fiefdoms within the Pakistani state, entailing the trinity of military, politicos and clergy, cannot allow any major course-correction from the historical Pakistani intransigence as that would amount to deligitimising, any one or more, of these three institutions.
Beyond a point, Imran Khan is beholden domestically to the GHQ in Rawalpindi and to the elements of sectarian religiosity within the Pakistan narrative, as well as to the survival-linked beneficence of the Saudi-bloc that by default militates against the aspired behavioural changes sought by Iran. The proximity of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) elements to the Iranian-Pakistani border as also the common ground of Tehran and Beijing on the US do offer the opportunity for China to play a more substantial and strategic role in Iran to the benefit of Pakistan. However, as of now, such geopolitical evolutions are only in the realm of strategic possibilities; whereas the more tangible, visible and secure footprint of the Indian state abounds and resonates in Iran, currently.
Honesty of purpose has triumphed both religious and sectarian pandering in Iran as neither is the Ashraf Ghani regime in Kabul a Shia-centric dispensation, nor does India have a commonality of religious denomination. Yet both these nations inspire more trust with the Iranians as opposed to Pakistan or even the so-called ‘Naya Pakistan’.
(The writer, a military veteran, is a former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry)
Writer: Bhopinder Singh
Courtesy: The Pioneer