Historically, the relationship between Pakistan and Iran has been exemplary. Iran was the first country to recognise Pakistan as a sovereign nation after it gained independence in August 1947. The Quaid-e-Azam, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founder, was the progenitor of close relations with Iran and had appointed one of his trusted lieutenants, Raja Ghazanfar Ali Khan, as Pakistan’s first ambassador to Iran. In May 1949, Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan paid his first state visit to Iran while the Shah of Iran became the first foreign head of state to visit Pakistan in March 1950.
Trials and tribulations faced by both countries, including internal strife and wars, enabled each to extend vital support to the other. During the Abadan Crisis (1951-1954), Iran nationalised the Iranian assets of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and expelled western companies from oil refineries in Abadan. Pakistan refused to side with the west despite pressures from the Occident. The Pak-India wars of 1965 and 1971 saw Iran extending unequivocal support to Pakistan, condemning India for aggression, providing vital medical and oil supplies and purchasing 90 F-86 Mk.6 Sabre jet fighters from West Germany for Pakistan after the US embargoed Pakistan’s defence supplies. Iran physically assisted Pakistan in quelling the Baloch insurgency erupting after the dismemberment of East Pakistan in 1971.
Strains in Pak-Iran relations became discernible in 1974 when Pakistan hosted the Islamic Conference in Lahore and the Shah of Iran declined the invitation because of Libyan dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi also being invited. Iran’s response to India’s nuclear test in 1974 remained muted despite Pakistan’s endeavours to eke a censure. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s endeavour to secure Iranian monetary support for Pakistan’s clandestine nuclear weapons programme as well as asking his “good friend” the Shah of Iran to “guarantee” a $ 300 million loan that Pakistan had requested of Citibank of New York met with a cold shoulder.
Bhutto was ousted by General Ziaul Haq in 1977 while 18 months later the Shah of Iran was also deposed by a religious revolution led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. In 1979, Pakistan was one of the first countries in the world to recognise the revolutionary regime in Iran, which it also supported militarily during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). Unfortunately, subsequent events began to sour relations between the erstwhile allies. Pakistan failed to officially condemn the massacre of Shia pilgrims during the 1987 Mecca incident. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 exposed a divergence in focus; Pakistan’s covert support was for the largely Sunni Pashtun groups while Iran chiefly propped up the Shia Tajik faction.
Ziaul Haq tried to extend his illegitimate rule by relying on religious schisms that purportedly also gave rise to the persecution of Shias by extremist Sunni groups and the retaliatory targeting of Sunni leaders by Shias. Ziaul Haq himself perished in a mysterious plane crash on August 17, 1988. Some analysts point fingers at Iran’s possible involvement in his elimination, purporting Zia’s culpability for the murder of scores of Shias including Allama Ariful Hussaini, the chief of Tehreek-e-Nifaz-e-Fiqha-e-Jafaria, the largest Shia organisation in Pakistan.
Irrespective of all this, Zia’s assassination did not quell sectarianism in Pakistan but amplified it. The high profile murder of Iranian diplomat Sadiq Ganji in Lahore and the brutal assassination of Iranian air force cadets visiting Pakistan in the early 1990s further widened the chasm. The war on terror and, in its aftermath, the rise of notorious sectarian terror groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, deliberately targeting Shias and Hazaras, has plunged Pak-Iran relations to their lowest ebb.
The situation has come to such a head that, according to media reports, the ministry of petroleum and natural resources notified the federal cabinet’s Economic Coordination Committee (ECC) that Iran had unilaterally ended the government-to-government Iran-Pakistan (IP) gas pipeline cooperation agreement with Pakistan, declaring that the project in its present shape had become unfeasible. Since the advent of the PML-N government in June 2013, perceived to be pro-Saudi Arabia, the IP project appeared to be in jeopardy because of Iran-Saudi rivalry. Pakistan’s stance on the Syrian crisis does not boost Iranian confidence either. Absence of a full time foreign minister has hurt Pakistan’s exterior manoeuvres immensely. It has had a bad run of trust deficit with Afghanistan and the new Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in India is posturing menacingly while shelling Pakistani posts across the Line of Control (LOC) as well as the Working Boundary, taking a high toll of human lives. Now Iran has jumped into the fray with its border guards carrying out forays inside Pakistani territory, killing Frontier Corps personnel and harassing Pakistani citizens, holding them hostage for hours, perhaps in retaliation for Iranian soldiers being abducted and killed by miscreants earlier this year.
To stem the rot, Pakistan needs to carry out a soul-searching exercise to root out the demons in its system. It must retain old friends with sincerity rather than turn them into foes.
The writer is a former group captain of PAF, who also served as air and naval attaché at Riyadh. Currently, he is a columnist, analyst and a television show host