IranCPECTop Pick

Iran seeks strategic depth in Pakistan ties

M.K. Bhadrakumar January 27, 2017 5:00 PM (UTC+8)
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The statement in Islamabad on Wednesday by Alaeddin Broujerdi, chairman of the Iranian parliament’s committee on foreign and security policies, while on a 3-day visit to Islamabad, to the effect that ‘no one can influence the deep-rooted cooperation’ between Iran and Pakistan, may not necessarily amount to a reference to India’s regional strategies.

The probability is that Broujerdi was alluding to Pakistan’s traditionally close ties with Saudi Arabia because the Iranian news agency IRNA situated his remark in a broader reference to the ‘strong brotherly ties’ between Iran and Pakistan, which hinted at their Islamic affinities.

However, Broujerdi’s next remark, namely, that Iran, China and Pakistan ‘should form a triangle of cooperation which will benefit the three important countries of the region’ certainly is a matter of utmost interest to India and it can possibly be viewed as a significant development in the geopolitics of India’s western neighbourhood.

This may well be the first time that an authoritative voice in the Iranian regime has openly articulated on the imperative of ‘a triangle of cooperation’ between Iran, Pakistan and China as a factor of regional stability.

It needs to be noted because Broujerdi is a seasoned diplomat and strategic thinker. For the benefit of those who are not initiated in Iranian politics, Broujerdi is an influential figure in the political establishment in Tehran and plays a significant role in Iran’s diplomatic initiatives. He is a frequent visitor to Syria and Lebanon, which fall within the first circle of Iran’s foreign and security policies.

The first thing that needs to be noted is the timing of Broujerdi’s remarks. He spoke within a week of Donald Trump’s ascension as the US president. Tehran anticipates a transformative period in the geopolitics of the region comprising the Persian Gulf, South and Central Asia.

Simply put, Iran expects a reversion to the interventionist policies of the US during the presidency of George W. Bush. Trump’s determination to revive the verve of US-Israel relations and restore the centrality of Israeli concerns in the remaking of the US’ Middle East policies cannot be lost on Tehran.

Also, Saudi expectations are rising that Trump is almost certainly taking a hard line on Iran and reasserting the US’ authority in the Middle East region in a turnaround from the past few years of the Barack Obama administration.

Suffice it to say, Iran needs to secure as much ‘strategic depth’ as possible in its region in the event of a sharp deterioration in the US-Iranian ties, which can no longer be ruled out.

Now, Pakistan also faces uncertainties in its relations with the US in the coming period under Trump. Apart from the backlog of differences in the relations between the two countries in the troubled period since 2011, much would depend on Trump’s approach to the Afghan war.

Pakistan is keeping its fingers crossed. If Trump decides to seek a military solution, there will be immense US pressure on Pakistan to curb the activities of the Haqqani Network. Equally, Pakistan’s close relations with China will continue to engage US attention.

Tehran would be estimating that there could be congruence of interests between Iran, Pakistan and China to push back at US interventionist policies in the region and to marginalize the American influence in overall terms.

Tehran would estimate that there is common ground here insofar as a strong, open-ended American military presence in Afghanistan would be detrimental to the interests of Iran, Pakistan and China.

Against this regional backdrop, do not be surprised if Iran presses its interest in participation in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Interestingly, Broujerdi didn’t bring in Russia into the equation to make it a ‘quadrilateral of cooperation’ – perhaps, he didn’t want to embarrass Moscow and Delhi. However, some strategic analysts see such a strategic calculus taking shape steadily in the region, involving Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran.

The climate of Iran-Pakistan relations has noticeably improved in the recent years. The two countries have been successful in harmonising their differences over Afghanistan where they have no more to enter into contestation, given Iran’s reconciliation with the Taliban and the two countries’ common threat perceptions over the rise of the Islamic State in the ‘AfPak’ region.

Again, Iran needs Pakistan’s cooperation to tackle the activities of Sunni terrorist groups in its eastern provinces, some of whom could be enjoying covert Saudi backing.

Conceivably, Tehran would feel uneasy that Saudi Arabia’s Islamic military alliance has been put under the command of the redoubtable former Pakistani army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif, underscoring the strong Pakistani commitment to Saudi Arabia’s security.

Suffice it to say, when Broujerdi spoke of ‘brotherly’ ties between Iran and Pakistan, he conveniently glossed over the complexity of their relations. The fact remains that the Iranian and Pakistan ‘brothers’ never quite managed to have a smooth relationship of trust and mutual confidence since the Islamic Revolution in 1978.

Without doubt, what has prompted Tehran to reach out to Islamabad is its reading that the latter would share its concerns over Trump’s likely regional policies. Simply put, Iran is seeking ‘strategic depth’.

Iran wouldn’t want Pakistan to return to the Saudi orbit, while on Pakistan’s part, it will not hesitate to go the extra league to prevent a revival of the strategic axis involving India and Iran.

The bottom line is that both Iran and Pakistan regard China as a bulwark against US hegemony. The CPEC also brings in an economic dimension.

Having said that, while there is hardly any scope for a US-Iranian constructive engagement as long as Trump is in the White House, the Pakistani perspective may differ.

The preference of the Pakistani elites will be to negotiate the terms of co-habitation with the new US administration on the basis of give-and-take. The Pakistani elites will do no matter what it takes to prevent Trump showing ’tilt’ toward India.

The US defence secretary Gen. James Mattis and the NSC Gen. Mikhail Flynn are old ‘Pakistan hands’. But then, India must be counting that this can also be a double-edged sword insofar as Trump has not one but two security czars who would have no illusions regarding Pakistan’s doublespeak on terrorism.

For sure, a keen diplomatic tussle lies ahead between India and Pakistan in the Washington Beltway. It is unlikely that Pakistan will respond to Broujerdi’s call for a strategic axis until the outcome of that tussle is fully known.

M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
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