By Kiran Nazish
Amid US concerns over new developments in ties between Pakistan and Iran, President Asif Ali Zardari made two visits to Tehran in a span of three weeks. Speculations on the reasons and significance of the move began right after his second visit in mid-July.
We need cheap energy and Iran is the easiest route. The US officially opposes it but has privately said it understands Pakistan's needs and will look away.
Newspaper headlines ranged from "Iran hopes gas pipeline to Pakistan will be operational by 2013" to "Iran's top leader tells Pakistan that US is the real enemy".
Officials say the unprecedented visits were meant to strengthen bilateral ties between the two neighbours, and especially to discuss the emerging situation in Afghanistan after the US troops leave. Countries in the region have conflicting interests in Afghanistan, and that impacts regional peace and stability. Pakistan is also looking to improve economic ties with the oil-rich neighbour from who it plans to import gas.
What causes speculations, according to analysts, is the pace with which Pakistan has reached out to various countries in the region.
Pakistan's ties with Iran have been less than ideal since the 1990s. The two countries disagreed over Taliban rule in Afghanistan, a large number of Shias including Irani diplomats have been killed in terrorist attacks in Pakistan, and Iran suspect’s terrorist infiltration from Pakistani side of the border. But Pakistan has also played a mediating role between the US and Iran and Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Most analysts link the warming up of ties between the two neighbours to rising tensions between the US and Pakistan. As relations between the two strategic allies are worsening, especially after the May 2 US raid to kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan's military town of Abbottabad, they believe Islamabad is looking for new strategic partnerships.
No matter how hostile Pakistan-US relations appear on face value, Islamabad, and to an extent Riyadh, will not make policy decisions without consulting their American friends
These developments could make US wary, because stronger ties between Islamabad and Tehran could hurt Washington's interests in the region. Washington and Tehran see each other as enemies.
"The United States has imposed sanctions on Iran, and because of that Tehran recently had a standoff with New Delhi who refused to make payments worth more than a billion dollars," foreign policy analyst Ali K Chisti said.
"Our relationship with Iran is more economic than strategic," he added however. "We need cheap energy and Iran is the easiest route. The US officially opposes it but has privately told Pakistan it understands Pakistan's needs and will look away."
The two neighbours, who also have strong cultural ties for centuries, might not have realised the potential economic or security benefits of good mutual relations because of Pakistan's closeness with the US.
But there are a number of issues the two countries need to resolve, according to current affair analyst and TV show host Farrukh Khan Pitafi. "There are allegations of human and drug smuggling across the Pakistan-Iran border. The Iranians are also seriously concerned about the never-ending Balochistan conflict. Iran believes that Jundullah terrorists might still be hiding within Pakistan."
Apart from that, Islamabad and Tehran also need to resolve the apparent conflicts of interest in a post-US Afghanistan.
"Pakistan is energy hungry and wants to import gas and electricity from Tehran," he said. In return, President Zardari might help ease tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, especially after the latter sent its forces to Bahrain.
"Only the last two things have the potential to annoy the administration in Washington," Pitafi believes, "and that too, marginally." First, because "any business transactions with Tehran is viewed in the US as an attempt to bolster an isolated regime", and second, because "if Iran and Saudi Arabia mend fences, the American leverage in the region is compromised".
But he rules out any drastic changes in the regional situation. "No matter how hostile Pakistan-US relations appear on face value, Islamabad, and to an extent Riyadh, will not make any policy decisions without consulting their American friends."
Source: The Friday Times, Lahore