Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his senior aides welcome Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to Tehran at the start of his two-day state visit. Image Credit: AFP

Islamabad: There are a number of significant aspects to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s state visit to Iran. The two-day visit that began on Sunday comes in the wake of a recent visit to Pakistan by the Iranian Interior Minister following a rise in tensions after five Iranian border guards were kidnapped by miscreants in February.

Despite their geographical proximity — both neighbours share the border along the restive Iranian province of Sistan-Balochistan — Pakistan and Iran’s relations can best be described as lukewarm and strained.

Iran has played its sectarian card in a bid to extend its influence in Pakistan by supporting Shiite groups and to counter Saudi Arabia-sponsored Sunni groups.

Iran is also weary of a secessionist militancy in its impoverished Sistan-Balochistan province — bordering Pakistan’s Balochistan province — where the Baloch have been supporting separatist tribes against Tehran.

And along the border region in general, there are security issues such as kidnappings, militancy, smuggling, narcotics and human trafficking — issues that arose in the fallout of Tehran’s economic relations with Pakistan following the imposition of US-led sanctions.

Though the sanctions are now being gradually eased as Washington and Iran move closer towards an agreement towards Tehran’s commitment to acquire a strictly civilian nuclear capability, Pakistan’s ambivalence on its position vis-a-vis the sanctions regime and its joint gas pipeline project with Iran remain. The government’s reticence towards implementing its part of the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project clearly shows its own double mindedness and the influence of external factors on its policy.

The Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, which was to traverse Pakistan and eventually supply India with badly needed gas, was originally named the IPI (Iran-Pakistan-India) pipeline. Reservations over security, royalties and international sanctions on Iran resulted in Pakistan and Iran deciding to go ahead without India at this stage. The result? Months and months of negotiations, haggling over royalties, and an eventual agreement, which has not led to anything tangible to date.

Pakistan is supposed to finish constructing the pipeline by December this year as part of its side of the agreement, but so far, there has been zero progress. And if things are to continue as they stand today, it is not possible for Islamabad to deliver on its commitment. That will prove quite costly, as it incurs a heavy daily penalty for having failed to deliver the pipeline on time.

It is unfortunate that Pakistan has not been able to relay the urgency of its needs to Washington and the US has maintained strong objections to the project. But with the change in atmospherics, maybe it is time Pakistan reiterates its national energy needs and sees what it can do without upsetting its commitment to the remaining international sanctions on Iran.

The project is expected to benefit Pakistan immensely in meeting its increasing energy needs. Despite having significant natural gas reserves, mismanagement and a growing demand by a burgeoning population has created a serious shortfall in the country’s gas supplies.

This in turn has also impacted the economy as industrial production has fallen consistently over the past few years, not only because of the gas shortage but also because of regular electricity shortages.

While it’s a given that the pipeline project will factor in talks between Prime Minister Sharif and President Hassan Rouhani, the two now need to sidestep the hurdles and move forward.

Iran’s strategic vision is not likely to be curtailed to supplying Pakistan’s energy markets alone. India does factor significantly and it only makes sense that Iranian energy sources eventually supply the Indian energy demands, once all three parties are able to settle any differences pertaining to this project.

The tricky part for Sharif lies in how he balances relations with Saudi Arabia as he tries to revive or rather breathe in new life in Pakistan’s relations with Iran.

The Pakistani prime minister enjoys excellent relations with Riyadh and that gives him an edge in assuring the Saudis that any improvement in relations with Tehran will not be at Saudi Arabia’s expense. It is not an easy task juggling two states that do not see eye to eye, especially in lieu of Tehran’s meddling in the Gulf, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.

Moreover, Washington’s rapprochement with Tehran has created mistrust among the Gulf states, which feel isolated and uncertain of their trusted ally’s support and position on key issues and challenges posed by Iran that are a direct threat to their national interests. Pakistan lies on the other side of the Gulf states and Iran and being a key strategic partner of Saudi Arabia, any strengthening of its relations with the Shiite state would be closely monitored in Riyadh.

But, another significant reason Pakistan needs to move forward with Iran is Afghanistan. It is of key importance that Islamabad improves its relations with Iran as the international troops’ withdrawal draws closer and a new Afghan president, which is most likely to be Abdullah Abdullah, takes control in Kabul. India’s relations with Kabul have been deepening over the past decade and it will only benefit Pakistan to improve its relations with all neighbouring states.

On an optimistic note, there are a lot of positives that can come about if Sharif plays his cards well towards balancing the regional political scenario.

Pakistan and Iran have already committed towards increasing security cooperation to man their joint border and to prevent terrorists and militants from carrying out operations that could affect the two.

This could be extended to comprise a regional security force to help the Afghan National Army and Police force as they assume full responsibility, especially in the border areas — it could be a good precedent to build trust and alleviate concerns of all stakeholders.

Pakistan should also play a more proactive role in mediating between Iran and the Gulf states and pressing on Tehran to stop interference in the GCC states’ affairs as well as Syria and Lebanon.

Not only does this impact the Gulf and Middle East but also South West Asia where too many jihadists and would be jihadists are eager to jump on the bandwagon and join the droves fighting in Syria.

This is likely to spawn further unrest and it is something Pakistan must bring forth to the discussion table. A more comprehensive discussion is probably on the agenda and the reason why Sharif has taken his key Foreign Ministry officials along.

— The writer is a former Deputy Opinion Editor at Gulf News.