When Pakistan gained independence in 1947, Iran was the first country in the world to recognize Pakistan as a sovereign nation and Shah of Iran was the first head of state of any country who traveled to Pakistan on a state visit in 1950. Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah, being a Shi’te Muslim himself, was a ardent supporter of strong relations between Iran and Pakistan. He debated the idea of close Iran-Pakistan relations in his meetings with people in his political circle as well as in his public speeches. Iran was also the new neighbor of Pakistan, which further gave boost to Mr. Jinnah’s case for strong Pakistan-Iran relations. Mr. Jinnah appointed Raja Ghazanfar Ali Khan as the first Pakistani ambassador to Iran. In 1949, Pakistan’s first PM Mr. Liaquat Ali Khan made his first state visit to Iran and cemented Pakistan’s strong relations with Iran in the years to come. In May 1950, a treaty of friendship was signed by Prime Minister of Pakistan Mr. Liaquat Ali Khan and the Shah of Iran.
Pakistan’s friendship treaty with Iran also had geopolitical implications, since Pakistan found Shah of Iran a natural ally as a counter to Egypt’s Pan-Arab ideologist Abdel Nasser, who was being supported by the Indian government. Many Arab monarchies at the time were also allied with Shah of Iran. Pakistan-Iran relationship at the time went well beyond geopolitics since both had granted each other MFN status for easy trade and there was also some military cooperation between both in Baluchistan. Since both Iran and Pakistan were pro-U.S. at the time, both entered U.S.-led Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) which was meant to be a defensive alliance against Soviet Union. Despite having Turkey, Iraq and UK in it, CENTO was largely a failure and is considered by most experts as one of the least effective Cold War alliances. Iran under Shah also played a role in the Indo-Pakistani war of 1965, providing Pakistan with medical help including nurses as well as a gift of 5,000 tons of petroleum. Iran also nearly imposed an embargo on Iranian oil supplies to India for the duration of the war. Iran again played a vital role in Pakistan’s 1971 conflict with India, this time supplying military equipment as well as diplomatic support against India. The Shah of Iran condemned the Indian attack on East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) as aggression and in an interview, he reiterated his support for Pakistan, saying “We are one hundred percent behind Pakistan”. Iranian Prime Minister Amir-Abbas Hoveida wasn’t far behind, saying in a speech that “Pakistan has been subjected to violence and force.” Moreover, throughout the conflict Iranian leadership repeatedly expressed its opposition to the dismemberment of Pakistan. Iran under Shah also helped Pakistan quell an armed uprising in Baluchistan in 1973 and provided Pakistan military hardware, including thirty Huey cobra attack helicopters, as well as intelligence sharing and $200 million in aid. The armed uprising was successfully defeated by Pakistan within 3 years. Shah had even proposed the idea of a confederation of Iran and Pakistan with a single army and with him as head of the state. The Indo-Pakistan wars of 1965 and 1971 played a major role in changing Iran’s views towards Pakistan and compelled Iran to make friendly advances towards India.
ISLAMIC REVOLUTION HITS IRAN
The first signs of tensions between Iran and Pakistan were observed when in 1974 Iran’s Reza Pahlavi refused to attend the second Islamic Summit that was being held in Lahore because of the presence of Libya’s Gaddafi. The then Pakistani PM Mr. Bhutto and his soft corner towards the Arab world annoyed the already frustrated Shah. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto played the Arab card very well. Before the Islamic Summit of 1974, Pakistan had not received direct financial aid from any Arab country but the Islamic Summit (also sometimes referred to as Lahore Summit) immensely improved Pakistan’s ties with the Arab world and Arab money started flowing in. After the military coupe in Pakistan and hanging of Bhutto, the new Pakistani head of state General Zia ul Haq, whose government was ideologically conservative, also adopted a pro-Arab approach after efforts towards building trust with Tehran proved futile. Two years after Zia ul Haq came to power, in 1979, the Islamic Revolution hit Iran with full force. This was the time when the romance between Iran and Pakistan went downhill. The new Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Khomeini pulled Iran out of CENTO and ended Iran’s close relations with the United States. In the first few months, Pakistan and Iran pretended to be partners; in 1979 Zia ul Haq famously said “Khomeini is a symbol of Islamic insurgence” which was reciprocated by the Ayatollah, in a letter, declared Pakistan an Islamic friend and called for ‘Muslim unity’. Even though Pakistan was one of the first countries to recognize the new revolutionary regime in Iran, Pakistan-Iran relations couldn’t get back on the right track because by 1981 Zia ul Haq had once again allied Pakistan with U.S. and opened up backdoor links with Israel while Iran continued to remain staunchly anti-U.S. and anti-Israel.
Since 1987, Pakistan has steadily blocked any Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons but at the same time Pakistan has supported Iran’s view on the issue of its nuclear energy programme, maintaining that “Iran has the right to develop its nuclear programme within the ambit of NPT.” In 1987 Pakistan and Iran signed an agreement on civil nuclear energy cooperation, with Zia-ul-Haq personally visiting Iran as part of its “Atoms for Peace” program. Pakistan officially announced its own nuclear capability on 7th September 1998. Before making the announcement, the then Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif sent a secret courier to Israel via Pakistani ambassador to United Nations Inam-ul-Haq and Pakistan Ambassador to the U.S. Dr. Maliha Lodhi, in which Pakistan gave complete assurance to Israel that Pakistan would not transfer any aspects of its nuclear technology or materials to Iran in any scenario. In 2005, evidence provided by the IAEA proved that Pakistani cooperation with Iran’s nuclear program was limited to “non-military spheres” and was entirely peaceful in nature.
Throughout the Iran-Iraq war, Pakistan officially stayed neutral but Iran’s attempts to export the Islamic Revolution were being seen with increased suspicion by Sunnis in Pakistan. Once it became clear that Saddam Hussein is going to invade Iran, Pakistan immediately deployed its military contingent to protect the Gulf states against the Iranian threat, placing around 40,000 military personnel in Saudi Arabia. At the same time, Zia regime secretly sold U.S.-made weapons (including Stinger missiles) meant for Afghan Mujahideen to Iran and made huge profits. It is also worth noting here that both Iran and Pakistan supported the anti-Communist struggle of Afghan Mujahideen while Soviet Union, after invading Afghanistan in 1979, declared support for Saddam’s Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war, which opened up new doors for Iran-Pakistan relations. While Zia had allied Pakistan with U.S. and officially maintained neutrality in the Iran-Iraq war, he understood well that Pakistan could not afford to mess up its relations with Iran, a neighbor, for the sake of U.S. and therefore he saw helping Iranians covertly as a mutually beneficial way to maintain Pakistan’s ties with Iran. And indeed, Pakistan’s help proved to be decisive for an Iranian repulsion of Iraqi forces. Stinger missiles provided by Pakistan made their impact and greatly improved
Iran’s position in the ‘Tanker War’.
Following Soviet pullout from Afghanistan, Pakistan-Iran had a new fallout. Both countries diverged on their policies in Afghanistan, with Pakistan explicitly backing the Sunni Taliban regime while Iran was opposed to the idea of a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Since India was supporting the enemies of Taliban, the Northern Alliance, the Afghan theater became a reason for closer ties with India and Iran. It is also important to note that during this time Pakistan was having very close relations with U.S., Saudi Arabia and Israel – the three countries Iran’s revolutionary regime hated the most. While Benazir Bhutto tried to iron out Iran-Pakistan relations by paying a lengthy visit to Iran in 1995, the growing Iranian proxy militia presence in Pakistan generated further distrust in the Pakistani public regarding Iran. Relations of both countries hit another snag when in 1998 Taliban forces captured Mazar-i-Sharif where thousands of Shias were allegedly massacred and then later when Iran accused Taliban of kidnapping its diplomats and killing them. The killing of the Iranian diplomats resulted in Iran amassing its troops on the Afghan border and threatening to attack the Taliban government in Afghanistan. In 1998 Iran accused Pakistani troops of war crimes at Bamiyan in Afghanistan and claimed that Pakistani warplanes had, in support of the Taliban, bombarded Afghanistan’s major Shia stronghold.
After 9/11, Pakistan joined America’s War on Terror and Iran initially supported removal of Taliban government from Afghanistan but became wary of the U.S. designs and feared that U.S. wanted to encircle Iran. This diluted of goodwill created between U.S. and Iran under Khatami government in Tehran. Under the Musharraf era, Pakistan-Iran ties significantly improved. In 2001 Hassan Rouhani, the current President of Iran, paid a visit to Pakistan where Pakistan and Iran decided to refresh their relationship and approach Afghanistan with a new understanding. In 2002, Mohammad Khatami visited Pakistan which further helped in improving relations between both countries. Khatami’s 2002 visit was the first visit to Pakistan by an Iranian head of state since 1992. Khatami also delivered a speech on “Dialogue Among Civilizations” at The Institute of Strategic Studies, a Pakistani think tank.
While Iran sympathizes with Kashmiris and their struggle, it seeks to forge and maintain its own influence in Kashmir, which naturally seeks to replace Indian and Pakistani influence to some extent, especially within the Shi’ite community. Ayatollah Khamenei had visited Jammu and Kashmir in the early 1980s and delivered a sermon at Srinagar’s Jama Masjid mosque. In 2010 Ayatollah Khamenei appealed to Muslims worldwide to support the freedom struggle in Kashmir and equated the issue with the ongoing conflicts in Middle East region. So far Iran has maintained a balanced approach on Kashmir, where it quietly seeks to forge some influence in the region while also strengthening its ties with the Indian state.
CHABAHAR SPY NETWORK
The present relations between Iran and Pakistan have been marred by distrust and divergence of interests in some key areas. On 3rd March 2016, Pakistan announced arrest of an Indian naval officer Kulbhushan Yadhav, who Pakistan claimed was working for Indian intelligence agency R&AW, and who was using a cover name Hussain Mubarak Patel, from Baluchistan province in a counter-intelligence operation. Pakistan charged him with espionage and terrorism activities and on 10th April 2017 Yadhav was sentenced to death by a Field General Court Martial (FGCM). India has at least acknowledged that Mr. Yadhav is affiliated with Indian Navy. Mr. Yadhav was based in Chabahar, Iran from where he operated for years, posing as a businessman. The reason Mr. Yadhav was able to operate from Iran is likely because of close India-Iran defense ties, as per India-Iran defense agreement of 2003. Iran’s Chabahar is also an ideal location to operate from if you are an intelligence officer running a spy network in Balochistan province of Pakistan. As per Pakistani sources, Indian intelligence maintains heavy presence in Chabahar, where India is engaged in a port project in partnership with Iran, which is also meant to be a counter to Pakistan-China’s Gwadar port project.
According to Pakistan, Kulbhushan Yadhav was running a whole network of agents and informants and while Pakistan says it has taken down most of the network, Pakistani officials privately admit there are still some sleeper cells active. According to Pakistan, another link of Mr. Yadhav’s Chabahar spy network is Uzair Baloch, the notorious gangster from Lyari area of Karachi, who is currently in the custody of Pakistani authorities. While Uzair Baloch has been accused and has since confessed to hundreds of murders in Karachi as well as extortion, kidnapping, etc., Pakistani intelligence community has also pointed him out as a part of Kulbhushan Yadhav’s Chabahar network and is accused of being actively involved in espionage activities against Pakistan. But the twist in this case, according to Pakistani sources, was that Mr. Baloch was not only spying for Indian intelligence agency R&AW but was also spying for Iranian intelligence MOIS. In fact, Pakistani officials said that initially when Mr. Baloch was arrested from Pakistan-Iran border, Iranian authorities claimed him as their own and wanted his custody and the Iranians backed their claim by pointing out Mr. Baloch’s Iranian passport. It was also reported in Pakistani and Indian media that Iran has asked for access to Mr. Kulbhushan Yadhav, although these reports were later rejected by Iranian envoy to Pakistan. Mr. Baloch is currently on trial.
As per Pakistani sources, another link in the Chabahar network is Uzair Baloch’s close aide Mullah Nisar, who was also arrested from Pakistan-Iran border following a gunfight. According to Pakistani sources, Mullah Nisar is believed to be a confidante of Uzair Baloch and is expected to divulge more critical intelligence which may prove helpful for Pakistani intelligence community to track down last remaining links of this alleged spy network.
Another boiling point in Pakistan’s relations with Iran is active Iranian subversion in Pakistan via its proxies and consistent attempts to export its ‘Islamic Revolution’ to Pakistan via subversion of Pakistani Shi’ite population while at the same time creating divisions among Sunnis. This is a model that Iran has already used in other Middle Eastern states and is still using it in countries like Bahrain, etc. In Lebanon, Iranian proxy Hezbollah now sits in the government, is the most powerful player in Lebanon and actively runs Lebanon’s foreign policy. In this way, Iran has carved a state within a state in Lebanon via its proxy Hezbollah. In Syria, Iran has done something similar by sending in Hezbollah units to support Assad-backed forces to crackdown on rebels with increased air support from Russia. The same model that Iran has already successfully used in other countries, where it first destabilizes them and then tries to take over the country or at least gain as much power & influence as possible via its proxies, is already being quietly applied on Pakistan.
In Pakistan, individuals like Faisal Raza Abidi not only openly talk about but have already raised private Shia armies while at the same time praising Pakistan Army to avoid heat, a tactic similar to how Hezbollah took control of Lebanon while appeasing the Lebanese Army. Faisal Raza Abidi has been accused to be involved in several killings of Sunnis in Karachi, his stronghold, and was recently arrested over double murders but was later released on bail.
On the other hand, while Pakistan has banned militant groups like Sipah-e-Muhammad, other more subversive groups that have been accused of having deep links with Tehran, like Imamia Students Organization (ISO), continue to operate in Pakistan with impunity. Another heavily Iran-influenced group is Majlis Wahdat Muslimeen (MWM), that presents itself as a ‘Muslim unity’ group but its top members have consistently supported Tehran over Islamabad in all significant matters. In 2015 prominent MWM leaders were arrested for allegedly lambasting Saudi Arabia, one of the closest allies of Pakistan, and creating sectarian tensions while calling for support for Houthis, which directly undermined Pakistan’s interests since Pakistan has since the beginning recognized, in line with the international community, the legitimate Yemeni government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi which is fighting against Iran-backed Houthis led by Ali Abdullah Saleh. The arrested MWM leaders have since been released on bail. Iran has also recruited Pakistani Shi’ites to fight its proxy war in Syria alongside Hezbollah and Assad’s forces. For this purpose, Iran formed the Zainebiyoun Brigade, which is still operating in Syria. Under this recruitment drive, Iranian spies as well as diplomats quietly recruited Pakistani Shi’ites who were disgruntled with the state. Many of these Shi’ites have lost a family member or relative in the sectarian killings in Pakistan and that makes it easier for Iranian intelligence or IRGC to recruit some of these people. Iranians offer them jobs and a new home for themselves and their families in Iran in return for their services. Many people believed these promises and agreed to leave Pakistan for Iran, where they were coldly told to go fight in Syria and in exchange Iran would give their families a place to live. Most of these people had little choice but to follow orders. Some who later returned were arrested by Pakistani security services. Others expect to be either buried in Syria or in case of survival hope to spend the rest of their days wherever Iran fits them in; whether in a refugee camp somewhere in Lebanon or a small house on the outskirts of Iran. Unfortunately, Pakistani government has not raised this issue publicly with Iran, even though Iran has not been shy to threaten Pakistan, which it recently did when it threatened to carry out strikes in Pakistan against alleged terrorist camps, something which Pakistan’s chief rival India praised.
CONTINUED IRANIAN AGGRESSION AGAINST PAKISTAN
While Iran has publicly threatened strikes in Pakistan, Iranian forces have a long history of attacking Pakistani territory. Here’s a timeline from 2014 on-wards of Iranian attacks into Pakistani territory: 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017. Moreover, Iran attacked Pakistani territory with mortars mere hours after India claimed ‘surgical strike‘ into Pakistan in 2016, which was praised by India. The response of the current Pakistani government to unprovoked Iranian aggression, apart from appeasement, has been mostly timid. Although Pakistan has formed a joint border management system with Iran to avoid further similar incidents, such initiatives have been taken before but they failed to stop Iranian aggression against Pakistan.
On the same day of Iranian mortar attack into Pakistani territory in 2017, the then Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif congratulated Iranian President Hassan Rouhani for winning his second term. Just couple of days later, the then Pakistani Opposition leader and chief of PTI Mr. Imran Khan was found lambasting PM Nawaz for not taking a stand for Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas at the Riyadh Summit. Meanwhile, anti-Pakistan militant groups based in Iran continue to carry out attacks against Pakistani security forces in Balochistan and despite assurances, Iran has not done anything to disrupt these militant groups operating from Iranian soil. Since Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 2021, this militant activity from Iran has significantly increased. Baloch Liberation Front (BLF) and Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) are two of the major groups presently operating from Iran. The absurdity of the situation is quite evident; with the current leadership and no reforms in diplomatic and bureaucratic structure, Pakistan is bound to continue to move forward with failed policies based on misreading and miscalculations.
IRANIAN INTERESTS IN AFGHANISTAN
Before the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 2021, both Pakistan and Iran followed two parallel policies where both engaged with NATO-backed Kabul regime led by Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah while at the same time supporting Afghan Taliban in different ways. Iran has supported Taliban insurgency by arming and funding Taliban as well as providing safe haven to Taliban leaders and their families. While Pakistan’s support for Afghan Taliban existed because of what Pakistan called previous regime’s pro-India policies, Iran’s support for Taliban was based on different factors as Iran wasn’t worried about Kabul’s pro-India policies since Iran and India are already allies. So, what drove Iran to support Taliban?
- A hatred for U.S. and West as a whole which compels Iran to undermine its
interests wherever it can.
- Fear of being encircled by the U.S. and NATO.
- Iran’s expansionist nature where Iran doesn’t want to stop expanding its influence through ideologyy and via proxy groups.
- The rise of Islamic State in Afghanistan also ultimately plays into Iran’s interests, which Iran points out as a valid reason behind its support for Taliban, even though IS has only directly attacked Iran once.
Iran and Pakistan both have very different reasons for engaging with the Taliban. While Pakistan is worried about Indian influence and anti-Pakistan activities in Afghanistan, Iran mostly interested in keeping U.S. influence away while also attempting to ally with the Taliban against Islamic State. Russia is another ally of Iran and India that quietly supported the Taliban before the 2021 takeover and has been closely engaging with the Taliban since takeover. While Pakistan has recently improved its relations with Russia, they’re still nowhere as strong as Russia’s ties with Iran or India. Russia, on its part, has its own interests behind its engagement with the Taliban. Among Taliban too, there’s a very small but growing segment of fighters and commanders who see Iran and Russia, both anti-U.S., as more reliable allies than Pakistan, which joined America’s War on Terror and is now increasingly seen among Taliban ranks as unreliable at best and treacherous at worst.
ISLAMIC MILITARY ALLIANCE TO FIGHT TERRORISM (IMAFT)
Pakistan’s leadership of IMAFT was a tough decision for Pakistan but it was absolutely in Pakistan’s interests for a variety of geopolitical and strategic reasons. But this decision ruffled feathers in both Tehran and New Delhi. For about one whole year Iran quietly lobbied Pakistan to reject the Saudi offer to lead IMAFT, similar to how Iran lobbied Pakistan to reject Saudi request to send troops for Yemen, which Pakistan did (initially). When lobbying didn’t work and Pakistani government went on to allow former General Raheel Sharif to lead IMAFT, Iranian envoy to Pakistan publicly voiced Tehran’s concerns. When Pakistan offered Iran to join IMAFT, Iran rejected that offer.
The fallout from President Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia and his speech at Riyadh Summit was felt in Pakistan, both in media as well as in politics and diplomatic circles. While some Pakistani analysts have resorted to unnecessary fear-mongering about a looming war on Iran, the truth may be somewhere in between. While it is true that Trump-led U.S. pushed for an Arab-Israel alliance against Iran, it is also true that U.S. itself, at least for now, is unwilling to play a direct role in this alliance. This was evident from the statement from U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson where he hinted that U.S. is still open to talks with Iran and Hassan Rouhani’s re-election has practically cemented this. While Trump-led U.S. pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA), which Trump during his campaign said he wanted to ‘tear up’ as Iran had been clearly violating the deal, the Biden administration had been working tirelessly to get U.S. back in the nuclear deal. It is clear that U.S. is not interested in a direct military war against Iran. But this doesn’t mean there will be no pressure on Iran. Indeed, Israel and Arab allies seek to put more pressure on Iran to rein in its proxies and end its ballistic missile programme, both of which along with possible-in-future Iranian nuclear weapons are also a credible threat to Pakistan and this is why Pakistan has consistently maintained a position against Iran’s nuclear weapons programme.
POLICY CHANGE FOR MIDDLE EAST
Pakistan’s old policy of neutrality in Middle East has been repeatedly proven to be misguided by the test of time. While Iran is already in a defence and geostrategic alliance with India, it is alienating Saudi Arabia that Pakistan needs to worry about. Alienating Saudis would mean Pakistan will also be alienating 55 other countries including U.S. While Pakistan’s relations with U.S. are still fraught, Pakistan can use its ties with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan’s own growing influence in the South Asia region to improve its ties with U.S. Not to mention the spiritual connection of the majority in Pakistan with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan’s own old defence ties with Saudi Arabia. It is evident that in the Middle East theater, Pakistan needs to take a clear stand and that stand would likely see Pakistan working closely alongside Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.
THE NEIGHBOR FACTOR AND PAKISTAN-IRAN BILATERAL RELATIONS
Pakistan will need to take a page out of Tehran’s playbook and tell Tehran that Pakistan’s relations with Saudi Arabia, U.S. and potential future relations with Israel should not be a problem for Iran if Iran’s strategic alliance with India isn’t a problem for Pakistan.
For a long time, Iran has been a troublesome neighbor to Pakistan; it has been quietly forging a strategic alliance with India while recruiting proxies in Pakistan as well as allowing its soil to be used by anti-Pakistan terrorist groups. Today an assortment of anti-Pakistan militant groups like Baloch Liberation Front (BLF) and Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) are operating from Iranian soil with full knowledge of the Iranian regime.
Since Iran is Pakistan’s neighbor and Pakistan would be wise not to engage in open armed conflict with Iran, at the same time Pakistan will need to stress it to Iran that it is best for both countries to continue bilateral engagement on border and security issues. Pakistan will need to deal with Iran from the position of strength; while bilateral cooperation is important, Pakistan also needs to counter Iranian designs in Pakistan and the South Asia region. Moreover, Pakistan will need to clamp down on Iran’s proxies active in Pakistan and consider carrying out cross-border strikes against terrorist bases in Iran as Iran itself is unlikely to act against these groups.
DEALING WITH IRAN FROM A POSITION OF STRENGTH
To make Pakistan-Iran bilateral relations work, Pakistan will need to deal with Iran from a position of strength. So far, Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership has avoided giving any public statements calling out Iran’s close alliance with India, which directly and indirectly undermines Pakistan’s regional as well as domestic interests. Pakistan’s leadership also didn’t publicly call out Iran on how Kulbhushan Yadhav was able to operate from Iran for decades since it is impossible that Iranian intelligence was unaware. Iran’s own espionage activities against Pakistan via spies like Uzair Baloch have raised considerable concerns in Pakistan’s intelligence community. Iran’s unprecedented threats of launching surgical strikes against alleged terror camps within Pakistani territory have also angered Pakistani public as well as Pakistani military. Pakistani government is also yet to officially and publicly condemn Iranian regime for recruiting Pakistanis to fight in Syria as well as carrying out acts of terror on Pakistani soil.
Weak leadership in Islamabad with its old redundant policies has, so far, largely allowed Iran to get away with things which no other country would allow. The changing global dynamics and the regional situation are indicative of the dire need for Pakistan to abandon its old policy of one sided appeasement towards Iran and devise a comprehensive strategy to back a well-thought-out new policy to deal with Iran from a position of strength.
CRACKDOWN ON IRAN’S PROXIES IN PAKISTAN
To deal with Iran from a position of strength, Pakistan will need to devise a strategy to crackdown on Iran’s proxies in Pakistan. This crackdown would not necessarily need to be violent. Pakistan will need to cut Iranian funding for Pakistan-based groups as well as block Iranian recruitment drives in Pakistan. Leaders of militant proxy groups will need to be neutralized and the groups themselves will need to be disarmed, dismantled and de-radicalized before those who haven’t been involved in any crimes could be released back into the public. Those who are involved in crimes like targeted assassinations of Sunnis, etc. should be tried in military courts as Pakistan’s civilian courts are inefficient. Pakistan will also need to consider sanctioning Iranians who are directly involved in funding terrorism in Pakistan. Militant proxy groups are not the only proxies of Iran in Pakistan. Iran has also penetrated deep into Pakistani politics as well as in the media and think tank establishment. While extremely pro-Iran papers and thesis are being published by some think tanks in Pakistan, pro-Iran mouthpieces can be found all over Pakistani mainstream media busy giving a shoulder to Tehran’s narrative in Pakistan. Many of these pro-Iran mouthpieces have successfully played their role in creating increased suspicion among Pakistani public regarding Saudi Arabia and Pakistan’s other Gulf allies as well as U.S. This artificially manufactured suspicion eventually ends up undermining Pakistan’s interests. This is not to say that Saudi Arabia hasn’t funded madrassas in the past and played a role in growing Sunni extremism in Pakistan. But much of that funding has since been blocked by Pakistan and many of those madrassas have since been shut down. Moreover, those madrassas and mosques were funded by Saudis during the time of Afghan Jihad on the request and approval of Pakistani state. Unlike Iran, Saudi Arabia never went around the Pakistani state and tried stabbing it in the back. Saudi Kingdom itself has faced backlash all over the world for their funding of madrassas which preach extreme Sunni Islam. Saudis have learned, with time, that it is much beneficial to invest their money in other areas. But on the other hand, Iran’s penetration into Pakistani society already runs far deeper than Saudi’s at any point in history. While Pakistan will need to forcefully take down Iran’s proxy militant groups, at the same time Pakistan will also need to try to cut back Iranian influence in Pakistani politics, media and think tanks; influence which is detrimental to Pakistan’s interests and has already done significant damage. The state possesses several non-violent ways to achieve this objective.
Pakistan will need to tolerate limited Iranian influence in Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover since this influence exists in coordination with Taliban. But at the same time Pakistan will also need to be ready to prevent Iran from hijacking factions within Taliban in the future, which would be a huge blow to Pakistan’s interests. Iran has supported Taliban with cash and arms but has also managed to escape international scrutiny thanks to the unwillingness of Washington as well as Iran’s own strong ties with Ashraf Ghani’s regime and India. Iran already has a sympathetic group within Taliban which includes Taliban leaders like Mullah Ibrahim. More recently there have been some tensions between Iran and Afghan Taliban following mistreatment of Afghan refugees in Iran and the resulting threats from Taliban. There’s a lot of exploitation potential in these tensions between Iran and Taliban.
Following Taliban takeover, Pakistan has competing interests with Iran in Afghanistan and while there’s a common interest against Islamic State, Pakistan will need to make sure that Afghanistan does not become too friendly towards Iran.
Pakistan-Iran relations before the Islamic Revolution in Iran were friendly and based on common interests. For a long time Iran and Pakistan cooperated and engaged in close bilateral and regional ties and Iran offered Pakistan material and moral support during Pakistan’s early tensions with India. But since the takeover of Iran by the Ayatollahs, it has drifted away from Pakistan and towards India and somewhere in the early 2000s Iran began to see India as a strategic partner. Since then Iran has consistently engaged in behavior that has undermined Pakistan’s interests; at first covertly and more recently quite publicly as a resurgent hybrid expansionist Tehran feels emboldened by the legitimacy given to it by the Obama and Biden administrations as well as its successes on the Syrian and Yemeni fronts. All the factors discussed above compel Pakistan to reconsider its approach towards Iran, Iran’s proxies in Pakistan as well as Pakistan’s overall defence and strategic policy in Middle East. Pakistan should not remain fearful of power projection and should start acting like the regional power it imagines itself to be. Pakistan should follow a policy of carrot and stick with Iran and should work towards its interests in Afghanistan and the Middle East simultaneously while effectively managing the security situation within its territory. Dealing with Iran from a position of strength will help Pakistan move towards achieving its regional and domestic security and strategic interests.