A recent abduction of border security forces along the Iran-Pakistan border in southeastern Sistan and Baluchistan province is testing Iran-Pakistan relations. Iran has suggested that Saudi Arabia was behind the abduction, which it believes was aimed at sabotaging its relationship with Islamabad. Pakistan needs Saudi money more than ever as it struggles economically. So just how resilient are Iran-Pakistan ties?
Iranian Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif has arrived in Islamabad for a one-day official tour to hold a meeting with his counterpart Shah Mahmood Qureshi and Army Chief Gen. Qamar Bajwa. The visit marks his second in two months since the Imran Khan-led PTI government has come into power.
The key point of the tour is said to be the abduction of Iranian guards along the Pak-Iran border on 16th October who has still not been recovered. Amid the chaotic internal situation of the country, the significance of the visit in undermined– by the protests of religious extremists all over the country.
Iran said that 16 of its armed force personnel including two intelligence officers of elite revolutionary guard corps were abducted on October 16th, 2018. The abductees were stationed at a border post in Iran’s Mirjaveh area when they came under attack from “counterrevolutionary groups,” said Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in a statement carried on state media.
This isn’t the first time an Arab ally of Pakistan expected Islamabad’s loyalty in return for financial support. The Saudis were unhappy when Pakistan refused to be part of the coalition fighting in Yemen, and the UAE even threatened it with punishment. Foreign Affairs Minister Qureshi has said the Saudis made no demands in return for the $6 billion loan. But what choice would Pakistan have, if there were demands?
However, Pakistan also has to pay attention to its neighbor, Iran. Tehran was unhappy when Pakistan’s former army chief, General Raheel Sharif, was appointed to lead the Saudi-organized Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism in 2017. Iran has in the past accused “elements” within the Pakistani military and Inter-Services Intelligence agency of supporting or going easy on insurgents infiltrating the Iran-Pakistan border.
Unlike Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Iran is not a source of billions of dollars of remittances for Pakistan, an essential contribution to the Pakistani economy. But the security of the Iran-Pakistan border has long been a source of comfort for Pakistan. Iran has, however, threatened to enter Pakistani territory if the Pakistani government doesn’t prevent terrorist attacks on Iran. Tensions rose in June 2017 when an unmanned Iranian drone went down deep inside Pakistani airspace.
While Iran and Pakistan both supported the campaign against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, their priorities have diverged over the years. Pakistan remains focused on India and Afghanistan. Iran worries more about the Persian Gulf. Still, Iran’s national security requires that it keep a stable relationship with nuclear-armed Pakistan, with which it shares a 900-kilometer border.
Both Iran and Pakistan are in deep trouble, socially and economically. Both are confronting US attempts to isolate them. Pakistan is prone to insurgency, terrorist attacks and ethnic tensions. Iran is facing renewed draconian sanctions on its oil industry and banks and rising domestic discontent. More than ever, they need stable relations, but external players may make that harder than ever to achieve.