Pakistan and Iran are important neighbors on the rim of South Asia and the Middle East, with deep cultural, linguistic, religious and traditional ties. Recently, though, Iran has bolstered ties with India, engaging Indian military expertise in the development of a strategic road. The road connects Iran’s Chabahar sea port and Afghanistan at the border town of Zaranj, running very close to Pakistan’s border in the process. The presence of Indian element on its Balochistan border with Iran, unrest in its Balochistan province, and multiple claims of foreign interference in the internal security of that troubled province all add up to create a serious question mark over the future of security relations between Pakistan and Iran.
Since the revolution, Iran has been unafraid to explore multiple avenues to fulfill its perceived security needs, including proxy, guerilla and urban warfare. From using Hezbollah against Israeli forces to supporting the Assad regime in Syria, Iranian policy has had an outsized role in the Middle Eastern security environment. Although few Pakistani security experts believe that Iranian Shia exposure can dislodge Sunni dominance in Pakistan, the Pakistani public is very aware of the curse of sectarian violence and many believe it is a result of foreign interference.
Historically, Pakistan was among the first countries to recognize Iran’s revolutionary regime. Amazingly, the Zia regime – itself often considered the cause of much sectarian violence – not only accepted Iran’s revolution but also sent a high-level official delegation to endorse friendly relations with Iran. Pakistan banned many local anti-Shia militant organizations and was evenhanded in its approach to both Sunni and Shia militant organizations. Anti-Shia groups such as Sapah-e-Sahaba and Lashker-e-Jhangvi were banned and many of their operatives were detained in operations by Pakistani security forces. Anti-Sunni groups such as Sapah-e-Muhammad faced the same treatment. Both sides had been linked to assassinations and bombings. Neither Pakistan nor Iran ever allowed sectarian issues to disrupt their relations, even at the peak of sectarian Shia killings in Pakistan.
In the wake of the A. Q. Khan revelations, Iran decided to seek nuclear technology from other sources, and Pakistan’s nuclear expertise lost its significance. Meanwhile, India began to develop closer relations with Iran. This led to a further cooling of ties between Iran and Pakistan.
The current tensions on the Pakistan-Iran border cannot be evaluated within the narrow context of the border area itself; broader strategic implications must also be considered. Pakistan has good relations with Iran’s rival Saudi Arabia, which may be misinterpreted. However, few security analysts believe that Saudi Arabia can address its concerns about Iranian nuclear ambitions by buying nuclear weapons from Pakistan. Saudi Arabia cannot buy, create or import weapons of mass destruction as long as it remains within the NPT regime. Even if Saudi Arabia did elect to withdraw from the NPT regime and pursue nuclear weapons capability, it would surely have no shortage of willing suppliers. For its part, Pakistan is not well placed to meet the demands of any other country – it is hard pressed to maintain its own strategic deterrence posture against a much larger country. At any rate, if relations between India and Iran can flourish while New Delhi maintains military relations with Israel*, then surely Iran-Pakistan relations should not falter in the presence of Pakistan’s dealings with the Sunni Arab world.
The second assumption in this regard is that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons could fall into the wrong hands. This phrase “wrong hands” warrants some consideration. Chinese nuclear technology is in the hands of the Chinese, while Indian nuclear assets are under Indian control. The same goes for all other nuclear states. For an international relations realist, all of these weapons are in the “wrong hands,” at least as far as the adversaries of these nuclear powers go. Pakistan as a Muslim state has firm control over its nuclear assets. The IAEA has acknowledged the strengths of Pakistan’s nuclear safeguards, achieved through a strong Personnel Reliability Program (PRP) and Human Reliability Program (HRP), which unlike those of Western powers also monitor religious issues. The A. Q. Khan episode is old and has been fully addressed by UNSCR 1540.
Iran is also a NPT member state and as such is (theoretically) prevented from developing nuclear weapons capabilities. Iran’s concerns about Pakistan’s rapidly growing nuclear arsenal are illogical for many reasons. First, Iran has never been a target of Pakistan’s nuclear force – Islamabad views it as a friendly state. Pakistan’s nuclear posture is designed to address the nuclear threat from its arch rival, India. Second, unlike Pakistan, Iran is a member of the NPT regime. As such it is bound to follow the IAEA’s safeguards and protocols, which allow regular inspections of its nuclear installations, and cannot engage in a nuclear arms race. Third, Pakistan’s security policy towards Iran is not based on hegemonic intentions; Pakistan respects the integrity and sovereignty of Iran and only seeks the same in return.
Pakistan has successfully established its writ on the border of Afghanistan, while the ongoing operation Zarb-e-Azb has dealt a major blow to the Pakistan Taliban. Armed operations in North and South Waziristan have implications for the border with Iran, given that the area of operation is quite nearby. Indian arms are being used against Pakistani forces in ongoing operations, demonstrating external interference in the region. While fighting externally funded terrorism on its soil, Pakistan is developing strict border controls. Recent border tensions between the two neighbors should not be interpreted as representing lasting conflict or reflecting ideological antipathy, as neither is supported by the facts on the ground.
Aziz Muhammad Jawad is a Ph.D. candidate in the Strategic and Nuclear Studies Department, National Defence University, Islamabad, Pakistan.
*Corrected from “India”.