Alwaght- On Tuesday, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif arrived in Islamabad for talks to top Pakistani leaders after visits to Latin American countries.
The visit to neighboring Pakistan came as the US regional policy in Afghanistan policy in Afghanistan and West Asia are influenced by Trump going out of power and showed that Tehran and Islamabad were preparing to strengthen their bilateral ties in the new atmosphere that is expected to overshadow the regional equations. This factors increase several folds Zarif’s visit especially that he among senior officials met with Pakistan’s army chief who has the last word on the important foreign policy cases like Afghanistan peace, Kashmir, and security-military pacts.
In a statement published by the Pakistani foreign ministry on the goals of the visit, Islamabad said that the trip is aimed at deepening bilateral cooperation and increasing the understanding on various regional issues.
Afghanistan case and the unfinished negotiations path
The continued war in Afghanistan and the highs and lows of the peace process and instability in the country are the important issues of the foreign policy of both Tehran and Islamabad that would be complicated as Trump is outgoing despite the developments they witnessed in the past months. Discussions surrounding Afghanistan made a major part of the meeting of Zarif in Islamabad. A proof of this fact was the presence of Mohammad Ibrahim Taherian, Iran’s special envoy to Afghanistan, among the Zarif-led diplomatic delegation in Pakistan.
Both Iran and Pakistan have advocated the intra-Afghan talks in Doha in the past months. Their Afghanistan policy is far from consonant, however. Over the past two decades, Iran has been a backer of a strong central government and thus stability and security in the country, seeing Afghanistan stability as an important factor for preventing terrorism in its eastern borders, decreasing the foreign military presence mainly the US military bases in Central Asia, chocking drugs trafficking, and returning of the Afghan refugees to their country.
Although Iran backed the talks between the Afghan parties to end the decades-long war between Kabul and the Taliban, it developed concerns about the US plan to incorporate the Taliban, which carries Wahhabi fundamentalist ideology, in the government. Additionally, as the talks between the government and the insurgent group unfolded, violence increased and ISIS’s Central Asia branch Khorasan stepped up its movement despite a US claim it is fighting the terrorist group.
On the other side, Pakistan enthusiastically throws its weight behind the idea that the Taliban must blend in the power and government in Afghanistan and that is because of the intricate relationship with the group and Islamabad's long-term support for it. Pakistan at the same time is not for fast withdrawal of the US forces from Afghanistan, believing that the exit will push to failure the efforts to secure Taliban presence in Kabul power structure. Meanwhile, it is worried to see ISIS gaining strength in Afghanistan as this will pose threats to Pakistani home security.
Naturally, with Trump’s departure from the White House, any change of the US policy towards the Taliban will affect the Qatar negotiations which have so far made no mentionable progress and even could not alleviate the unrest in the country. Being pessimistic about the US policy and negotiating with the Taliban under the American pressures, the Kabul government in the future will find a chance to publicize its opposition and thus influence the incoming President Joe Biden’s Afghanistan policy. It will try to recapture the currently Taliban-held areas, a wish if materialized can once again fuel the fire of the Afghanistan war.
Therefore, the role of Iran and Pakistan as the two important actors in Afghanistan for fighting terrorism and pushing forward the dialogue and peace in a fashion acceptable to the Afghan public and government will gain weight.
Improving bilateral ties
The illegal and bilateral sanctions of the US against Iran caused Tehran to prioritize the expansion of economic partnership with the neighbors to cut the effects of the embargo. During last year’s visit to Tehran of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, the two sides agreed to work towards a $5 billion bilateral trade by 2021. Pakistan can provide a big market to the Iranian products and also can offer passage to the Iranian access to China. According to unofficial reports on the long-term China-Iran trade agreement, Iran is committed to providing gas to Pakistan and China using the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
On the other side, Iran can offer a quality transit route for Pakistan to export its goods to Turkey and Europe. Pakistan and Iran are both Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) members (Iran is an observer member) and both are founders of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO). Every year, the two countries have a “border summit” in which commercial issues are discussed. This year’s summit was held in Quetta, Pakistan a month ago.
Place of regional developments in Zarif’s trip
Another driver behind the Pakistan visit was the regional developments. Iran has always been a supporter of the Muslims of Kashmir and against unilateral policies of the current Indian government that announced a state of emergency in the disputed region and systematically suppressed the Kashmir Muslims who demand revocation of new laws.
This Iranian approach is highly crucial with regard to the Pakistani foreign policy, while other Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE have not taken a Pakistan-anticipated stance. The Pakistani foreign ministry’s statement said that Iran has been “serious in supporting the people of the occupied Kashmir."
In the past two years, PM Imran Khan several times sought to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia, only to fail as the Saudis have been strict to the efforts. Now with the coincidence of the Saudi military defeat in Yemen with the arrival of a new president in the US, who in his campaign promised to be tough on the Saudi warlike policy, the Saudis may be open to Islamabad mediation for more face-saving withdrawal from Yemen swamp. On Saturday, Zarif in a tweet expressed Tehran’s readiness to start negotiations to remove the differences with some regional countries like Saudi Arabia.
“A sincere message to our neighbors: Trump's gone in 70 days But we'll remain here forever Betting on outsiders to provide security is never a good gamble We extend our hand to our neighbors for dialog to resolve differences Only together can we build a better future for all,” the Twitter post read.
Now it remains to see if Pakistan, which took a moderate stance regarding Yemen to save the balance between the two major poles of the Muslim world and the region, can take a new step to unlock Tehran-Riyadh relations deadlock.