On May 08th a local militia group which has taken base on Iranian soil claimed responsibility for the attack, on the Pakistan army patrolling the region, near the Pakistan-Iran border in Balochistan. One major of the Pakistan Army and five soldiers perished in the attack. Pakistan’s COAS, General Bajwa called Iran’s Army General to express his concern, the two decided to strengthen forces along the border and continue to uphold security measures in accordance to the Joint Rapid Reaction Force, which was established last year.
This attack is not the first of its kind, militia settled across the Iranian border has continued to attack the Pakistan army in prior incidents. The Joint Rapid Reaction Force was created last year in order to tackle border conflicts. And while relations between the two countries unsurprisingly become stretched following such conflicts, the two often contract back to diplomatic dialogues and cooperate in dealing with militia encounters.
Iran and Pakistan have always shared a complex relationship, the two South Asian neighbors have often found themselves on the opposing side of the table despite trying to boost friendly relations. All measures to boost this friendship will continue to be undermined as long as the border shared between the two remains susceptible to terrorist threats. However, recent developments concerning trade and military partnership between Iran and China, provide a hopeful future for the Iran-Pakistan duo.
China has risen to the opportunity and emerged as a lifeline for Iran amidst growing US sanctions. Iran suffers terribly at the hands of the Trump administration which re-imposed sanctions on trade in 2018. China and Iran collaborating against the common enemy in the west seemed inevitable. The initiative in turn wins the support of Pakistan while simultaneously saving Iran from economic misery. While no official statements have yet been released by either China or Iran, the former has allegedly planned to invest $400 billion over the course of 25 years in various development and infrastructure projects.
Iran has previously turned to India for economic investments, much to the dismay of Pakistan. The two have collaborated on many infrastructure projects most notably that of Chabahar Port, Iran’s first deep-water port off the coast of Oman. The Chabahar Port serves as a direct counter to Pakistan’s deep-sea port in Gwadar, and the two would compete for trade in Central Asia.
However, India has shifted its focus on winning the favor of the United States and is readily respecting US sanctions in Iran. Surprisingly, the US has waived sanctions on the Chabahar Port project. How is a country that has crippled Iran’s economy for decades, now willing to relax these restrictions? This has not gone unnoticed in Iran and many theorize that the port’s strategic location and its access to the Middle East and Central Asia have attracted western interest. Despite the waiver, there has been a supposed 80% decline in trade between Iran and India, with India suffering a deficit in trade in the region. Due to these reasons, Iran has expressed the desire to attract other investors to the Chabahar Port project.
A testimonial to the strained Iran-India relationship came when the Indian Prime Minister, Modi revoked Article 370 in occupied Kashmir, earlier this year causing much uproar in Pakistan and the international community. Iran was quick to respond in Pakistan’s favor, condemning Modi’s actions in Kashmir. Iranian President Rouhani stated that “Kashmir’s Muslims must be able to use their own interests and legal rights and be able to live in peace.” This was a rather vocal rebuke of India’s actions by its supposed partner, Iran.
The relations between Iran and Pakistan have remained important considering the travel of Pakistani Shia pilgrims to Iran each year. Iran is also anticipated to be a part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) along with Pakistan which aims to strengthen trade links and routes in Asia. 138 countries have signed a memorandum to participate in the initiative, yet India is not part of it. This is unsurprising considering territorial conflicts between India and China in Ladakh.
Many argue that the relations between Iran-Pakistan will remain strained due to the countries’ opposing goals for Central Asia with Iran allying with Russia and Armenia while Pakistan sides with Turkey and Azerbaijan. A counter-argument would state that the two are in fact in a unique position to act as mediators between the opposing countries they support. Especially regarding the ethnic conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory.
It can be optimistically predicted that Iran realizes the strategic importance of Chabahar port for India and the US and would do what it can to shift economic reliance on China so as not to benefit the US, which has halted Iran’s economic progress for decades. This will in turn benefit Pakistan and facilitate uninterrupted trade from the Gwadar port. Considering geographical importance, religious and cultural ties and economic interests of both Pakistan and Iran, it can be deduced that diplomatic relations between the two will only continue to strengthen in light of recent developments.