Iran-Pakistan bilateral relations appear to be on the upswing after a period of acrimony between the two neighboring states. This improvement is likely to be limited and only temporary.
On Tuesday, the Iranian and Pakistani navies began a joint naval drill in the eastern part of the Strait of Hormuz, the vital chokepoint through which 20 percent of global oil supplies traverse.
Over the weekend, Iranian media outlets began reporting that a Pakistani naval flotilla had docked at the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. According to Rear-Admiral Shahram Irani, the second in command for operations for Iran’s Navy, the Pakistani fleet was comprised of a “missile-launcher warship, a logistic warship and an advanced submarine.”
Irani also told reporters that: “The most important program of the Pakistani fleet during its presence in Bandar Abbas is holding joint naval drills with selected units of the Iranian Navy’s Southern Fleet in the Eastern waters of the Strait of Hormuz on April 8.” Iranian media also said commanders from both navies would hold meetings during the visit, which was expected to last four days.
The drill on Tuesday came just a day after the Iranian and Omani navies staged a joint rescue and relief exercise in the Sea of Oman.
The day after the Pakistani fleet arrived at Bandar Abbas, Iran’s parliament held a Sunday session in which it approved the general terms of a security pact Tehran and Islamabad had signed in February of last year. The Iran-Pakistan security pact reportedly focuses primarily on counterterrorism, but also includes human and drug trafficking. The latter is a major problem for both countries.
The bill had lingered for over a year in Iran’s parliament after having been approved by the Iranian Council of Ministers and submitted to the legislature in March 2013. It was ultimately approved overwhelmingly by the Parliament, with 187 deputies voting in favor of the bill and just 14 legislators voting against it (another 6 abstained). According to nearly identical media reports in Iranian and Pakistani media, “The bill contains a single article and 11 clauses in which the areas of cooperation, working methods, costs, the responsible ministries and other issues relating to the security pact are included.”
The bill’s passage appeared to be in response to four Iranian border guards being returned to Iran on Sunday morning after spending two months in captivity in Pakistan. Their capture has poisoned relations between Iran and Pakistan for nearly two months.
Still, it appears the issue of the border guards could continue to hamper bilateral relations between Tehran and Islamabad. For one thing, five border guards were originally captured and one was reportedly killed while in captivity.
On Monday Iranian Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli said Tehran would not officially recognize that the other border guard had been killed, but insisted that: “Pakistan is responsible for maintaining security at its borders and if the terrorists are sheltered in Pakistan’s territories, the country should officially account for it.” While noting that the two sides would increase security cooperation around the border, Fazli reiterated that, “we still take Pakistan responsible for maintaining security at its borders.”
Iranian officials have also repeatedly denied that Pakistani authorities played any role in securing the four border guards’ release, despite saying that they had been handed over by Pakistan. “Although some actions were taken by the Pakistani border guards to find their Iranian colleagues, the Pakistani intelligence, military and police forces played no role in releasing the hostages,” the commander of Iran’s border guards said.
For its part, Pakistani officials are denying that the border guards were ever brought into Pakistan, instead claiming that they had been held hostage in Iran.
Besides this particular case, there is every reason to think that the border issue will continue to impair Pakistani-Iranian relations as militants continue to mount attacks on Iran from safe havens in Pakistan. Last October, for instance, militants operating from Pakistan reportedly ambushed Iranian border guards, killing fourteen, wounding five others and taking three additional border guards hostage. In response, Iran promptly hung 16 prisoners being held in the region.
As I argued last month, Iran and Pakistan also have diverging interests on many strategic issues relating to Afghanistan and the Middle East. Of particular concern to Iran is Pakistan’s deepening ties to Saudi Arabia under Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, which are reportedly leading Islamabad to help assist the opposition in Syria. While denying that Pakistan was involved in Syria, a senior national security advisor to Sharif said earlier this month that Pakistan was trying to sell small arms and fighter jets to Saudi Arabia.
Sharif has a long history with Saudi Arabia, having spent his time in exile there. Sharif was also a protégé of Pakistan’s former leader General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, who is widely considered to have greatly “Islamized” Pakistan during his time in power.
It’s notable in this regard that while the Iranian and Pakistan naval drill this week has been excessively publicized in Iran’s media, it has only received cursory attention in Pakistan’s press.