It’s not a small development
The country’s central location in Eurasia and Western Asia, and its proximity to the Strait of Hormuz, makes it of great geostrategic importance. Iran is heir to one of the world’s oldest civilizations
In the age of China’s exceptional rise on the economic front, new alliances and coalitions are in the works in Asia. Sings are visible: United States of America (USA) is losing influence, Russian footprint is growing and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is expanding.
China’s thriving economic and military power, growing political and diplomatic outreach, and increasing involvement in the regional and international affairs is attracting new players to join the Chinese block.
With the launch of multi-billion-dollar project, China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the influence of Beijing is luring many states eastwards. The latest to the list is Iran.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has shown eagerness to join the CPEC bandwagon. This is not a small development.
Comprising a land area of 1,648,195 km2 (636,372 sq mi), Iran is the second-largest country in the Middle East and the 18th-largest in the world. With 78.4 million inhabitants, Iran is the world’s 17th-most-populous country. It is the only country with both a Caspian Sea and an Indian Ocean coastline.
The country’s central location in Eurasia and Western Asia, and its proximity to the Strait of Hormuz, makes it of great geostrategic importance. Iran is heir to one of the world’s oldest civilizations, beginning with the formation of the Proto-Elamite and Elamite kingdoms in 3200–2800 BC. The area was first unified by the Iranian Medes in 625 BC, who became the dominant cultural and political power in the region.
Iran reached its greatest geographic extent during the Achaemenid Empire founded by Cyrus the Great in 550 BC, which at one time stretched from parts of Eastern Europe in the west, to the Indus Valley in the east, making it the largest empire the world had yet seen.
However, despite all its geostrategic strengths coupled with rich oil and mineral resources, Iran has suffered a lot in the recent past due to economic sanctions enforced by the US. But since the sanctions have been partially lifted in wake of the successful dialogue with the US and other countries, the post-sanctions Iran needs a thorough, impartial and detailed study.
The available options are limited though: Either Iran would have to move towards its natural allies — Russia and China, with whom it has been working in Syria too. Or Iran would have to move towards the US — a traditional enemy for Rouhani & Co. Though the decision won’t be easy but Iran has to make a choice.
While India and Afghanistan, the friendly states towards Iran, are fast tilting towards the US, the dynamic president of Iran, Rouhani, is making sure that Iran gets a good chunk of the regional trade and corridors without taking sides.
With this information at hand, I recently reached out to the Iranians to comprehend what’s cooking up there in Tehran. My discussions and interactions with senior Iranian officials have revealed that Iran is changing very fast in a bid to catch up with the rest of the world. Perhaps out of concern of being left behind Iranian leaders are assessing their options carefully.
While the Iranian nation has bravely survived the scare of economic sanctions, it is heartening to note that Tehran is trying to reach out to all its friends with improvement in relations with its immediate and remote neighbours its top priority.
Yet another area where Tehran and Islamabad need to work together is the concern of Pakistan about the increasing influence of India in Iran
India is fast making its designs clear to the world: New Delhi would be the new hegemon in Asia. The recent border skirmishes with Pakistan and the killing and maiming of hundreds of civilians in Occupied Kashmir actually is a tool to tell the regional states to either submit to Delhi’s dictates or be ready to face the music.
On the other hand, the emergence of a new regional alliance comprising China, Russia, Pakistan and Turkey is attracting many regional players. Perhaps this alliance is aimed at joining forces to curtail the increasing regional influence of India, which has the full blessings of the US and its allies.
It is important to note that Tehran is very closely watching the realignments taking place in the region as well as at the international levels to assess its future plan of action. With a new block emerging in the region, Iran is fast shifting its weight towards China. Iran can join this coalition which aspires to keep the region peaceful and economically vibrant.
The willingness shown recently by President Rouhani to join with the world’s economic giant through CPEC is actually not linked to benefit economically but also the strategic significance of this new emerging alliance is also being taken care of.
My communication with Iran’s Keyvan Khosravi, adviser to the secretary of Iranian Supreme National Security Council, revealed the thinking pattern prevailing in Tehran. Khosravi says the regional cooperation with China and other Asian powers is not related to the post sanctions situation in Tehran and rather it has been a priority of Iran since long. “Good ties with neighbours has been the corner stone of the foreign policy of Iran. Boosting commercial and trade ties with China, Pakistan and other countries is one of our priorities,” he said.
Khosravi said that Iran’s priority is to join a regional alliance with the countries of the region and China, Russia and Pakistan are natural allies of Iran. He said that negative reports of pitching Chabahar Port against Gwadar Port were malicious in nature and were propagated with intent to harm the good ties between Pakistan and Iran. He said that both the sister ports would complement each other.
The security situation in the bordering areas between Pakistan and Iran has been a source of concern for Iran as secure borders are critical for trade routes and corridors. Even last week, a bus carrying pilgrims en route Iran was stopped near Quetta and four women were identified and gunned down by terrorists who fled after the bloodbath.
Iranian officials see a conspiracy behind such terrorist attacks, Khosravi says that friendly relations between Pakistan and Iran are not welcomed by some neighbouring countries who he claims are funding terrorist outfits to create mistrust between Pakistan and Iran.
“Some regional and international players want to create mistrust and suspicion between Pakistan and Iran. So they fund terrorists to carry out such attacks. We are satisfied with reports that Pakistan army is taking action against such elements”.
But the concern is not only for Iranian side. Pakistan is also wary of some intelligence reports suggesting that Indian intelligence agency, RAW, has been using Iranian soil to launch terrorists into Balochistan for acts of sabotage and terrorism. Following the recent arrest of Indian intelligence officer, Kulbhushan Yadev, from Gwadar, some intelligence reports had suggested that the arrested officer had been launched from Chabahar into Balochistan.
Iranian officials not only are aware of this concern but they are also trying to make sure that its soil is not used against Pakistan.
“We are in direct contact with Pakistani authorities so that the challenges posed by miscreants are thwarted. Apart from ground operations, we are also taking action to make sure no one is allowed to move across the border. However, these steps still are insufficient. When there is insecurity at bordering areas, such incidents may happen,” he added.
Another concern Iran shares with Pakistan is the lack of stability in war-torn Afghanistan. Iran believes that destabilisation in Afghanistan may have a spillover effect into Iran which over the years has used its resources to bring normalisation in Afghanistan.
Yet another area where Tehran and Islamabad need to work together is the concern of Pakistan about the increasing influence of India in Iran. This is a thorny issue which may harm the efforts for trust and confidence building between both the Muslim states.
When I shared Pakistan’s concerns with Iranian officials about the growing Indian influence in Iran, another official in the Iranian foreign ministry, Mehdi Akuchakyan, the chief of diplomacy department, ministry of foreign affairs of Iran allayed the impression, saying that Iran would never allow any third country to harm its friendly ties with Pakistan.
“We also expect the same from Pakistan that it would not allow any third party to damage our brotherly, friendly ties,” he said and added that Iran has asked Pakistan to share evidence about the presence of Indian spies in Iran.
Terming Pakistan’s security as the security of Iran, Mehdi said the brotherly nations share borders, rich history and culture. “We are ready for security cooperation with Pakistan. We certainly will take action if Pakistan shares evidence about the presence of any foreign element in Iran which is hostile towards Pakistan,” he added.
“We will take action if any information is shared with us. But till this day, we have received no information about the presence of Kubhushan Yadev or about the entering into Iran by former Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour into Iran. We are ready to take action if Islamabad feels any other spy is bent to use Iranian soil against any state,” he maintained.
Asked about Chabahar Port, Mehdi Akuchakyan said the port would function for transit trade for Afghanistan and India. “Yes, India has no direct access to Chabahar Port but they would be using Chabahar for transit purpose. There are so many countries which have no direct access to the Caspian Sea but they use it for transit trade. We are developing Chabahar port to help develop our underdeveloped areas in Sistan-Balochistan Province,” he said when asked how India would conduct transit trade when it has no borders with Iran.
Iran also is concerned about the growing influence of Daesh in the bordering areas of Afghanistan.
“We have concerns that terrorist outfits like Daesh may threaten our security. For this purpose, Iran wants to increase security cooperation with Pakistan,” he added.
The history of Pakistani and Iranian relations dates back to the very inception of the former, as Iran being the first country to recognise Pakistan before any other state in the comity of nations. Through thick and thin, be it Iran under Raza Shah Pehlvi’s monarchy or Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution, Pak-Iran bilateral relations remained enviable. Now, with changing ground realities and rise of Asia, it is only natural that the torchbearers of most ancient civilisation side with the one riding the ‘tide of the time’ rather than leaning towards the powers whose might is gradually waning.