After Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s successful visit to India in February 2018, his Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has sought to ‘assuage’ Pakistani concerns about his country’s cooperation with India, especially to develop the Chabahar port.
During a freshly concluded visit to Islamabad, Zarif, while addressing the Pakistan Institute of Strategic Studies said, “We want to develop Chabahar as a complementary port to Gwadar, and not as a competing port…”.
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He went on to say, “It is not a project to encircle Pakistan or anybody, but to develop the region which requires a lot of development.”
Moving away from Chabahar, Zarif assured Pakistan that Iran would not allow its territory to be used against Pakistan, “just as Pakistan will never allow anyone to hurt Iran from its territory”.
In a direct reference to India-Iran ties, Zarif stated, “Our relations with India are not against Pakistan, just like Pakistan’s relations with Saudi Arabia are not against Iran”.
Zarif is a veteran diplomat who negotiated the US-Iran nuclear deal with the then US Secretary of State John Kerry. He chooses his words with great care; hence, it is essential for India to assess his message to Pakistan. This is all the more important because the connectivity that India seeks through the Chabahar port to Afghanistan and beyond, is part of its long-term regional strategy.
India Need Not Be Alarmed
Zarif was not articulating a new Iranian position in seeking connections instead of competition between Gwadar and Chabahar. However, as Iran is going ahead with developing the port with India, the signal to Pakistan is that such connections will have to be with an India associated port. This is because Iran has agreed to give India operational control of a part of the port for a year-and-a-half.
Complementarity implies co-ordinated, if not common, arrangements. Will Pakistan agree to the Iranian offer, especially as Gwadar is going to not remain merely a commercial port?
Moreover, will China (which will really be the master of the Gwadar port) be willing to offer facilities to Iran in it? These are thorny questions, and it is doubtful if despite good words from Iran and Pakistan, a real connection will be established between the two ports.
For India, whose primary interest is in connectivity through Chabahar and thus, a presence there, the Iranian offer to Pakistan should, in any case, be no cause for alarm. Its focus should be on delivering on all its commitments on Chabahar, even though working on the ground in Iran is never easy.
India’s Budding Ties with Saudi Concerns Pak
Zarif’s reference to Saudi Arabia, while seeking to soothe Pakistan’s worries about India-Iran ties, was deliberate and meaningful. It is no secret that Pakistan’s relations with Saudi Arabia are far closer and more intense than with Iran.
This is both on the sectarian and the security axis. However, Pakistan has occasionally tried to balance its ties with both countries. This was particularly so after Saudi Arabia and Iran locked horns in 2015 in the Yemen civil war.
The Saudis wanted Pakistan to join the Sunni coalition which was directed against Iran. However, the Pakistani Parliament refused to allow it, and even more, the Army wanted to act cautiously. The Saudis were disappointed. Last month, Pakistan shed its earlier caution and agreed to augment its troop presence in Saudi Arabia – under a defence agreement that a contingent of its troops is always stationed in Saudi Arabia. One reason for the changed Pakistani position is India’s growing ties with Saudi Arabia.
While Pakistan stressed that its soldiers would be involved only in internal security, the decision has obviously been noted in Tehran; thus, the not-so-gentle reminder in Zarif’s address.
Zarif criticised Saudi Arabia for not responding positively to Iran’s desire to mend fences and for wanting to circumscribe its role and position in the region. Pakistan-Iran ties have to bear the full weight of Saudi-Pakistan relations, and this necessarily will constrain their growth.
Zarif’s not-so-subtle signal was to demand that Pakistan should maintain a balanced approach.
India Can Sleep Easy, Pak Needs to Worry
In view of the tangled situation in West Asia, India does not face the real danger of Iran really diluting its relations with it to satisfy Pakistan. This was also demonstrated by differences in the Pakistani and Iranian accounts of the interaction of Zarif and his Pakistani counterpart Khawaja Asif on issues of concern to India.
The Pakistani Foreign Ministry statement noted inter alia, “Pakistan and Iran reiterated support for the peaceful struggle of the people of Palestine and Kashmir, and their right to self-determination…”.
On the other hand, the Iranian Foreign Ministry has given a short write-up on the meeting which mentions among other points, “The two officials talked about issues of the Muslim world…”.
It is likely that Zarif and Asif have spoken about their perspective of the Kashmir situation, and once in a while, the Iranian Supreme Leader expressed a view on Kashmir which was not to India’s liking. However, what is noteworthy is that the Iranians are unwilling to take a joint position on Kashmir with Pakistan. Obviously, they do not want to annoy India on this subject and create an obstacle to growing bilateral cooperation.
Clearly, at this stage, India does not need to be concerned about Zarif’s remarks on Chabahar; it is Pakistan that should take his message on Saudi Arabia seriously — as in the past, Iran could potentially complicate its sectarian situation which is always tense.
(The writer is a former Secretary [West], Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached at @VivekKatju. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)