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Iran and Pakistan –It’s Complicated

The recent kidnapping of 5 Iranian soldiers serving along Iran’s border with Pakistan and their subsequent alleged captivity in Pakistani territory has shed light on the complex relationship between the two states. With western media analysis firmly focused on continued negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program and Pakistan’s internal troubles, there is little written about the relations between the two neighbours who share a 900km border running through the heart of the Baluchi cultural region. This is a relationship that contains myriad complexities and the potential for conflict and cooperation, ranging from tackling Baluchi separatism and drug trafficking to pipeline politics, Afghanistan and the ever-present spectre of US and Saudi interests in the Middle East and beyond.

Despite the complexities, relations have been good up until now, showing the pragmatism of both states and the importance both place on the relationship. However, the recent comments of Iranian Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, who has threatened unilateral action inside Pakistani territory as a means of maintaining Iran’s security and that of its soldiers serving along the border, demonstrate the potential for a rupture and the necessity for pragmatism to prevail.

Historical backdrop

Iran and Pakistan have maintained formal diplomatic relations since the latter’s independence, with Iran being the first state to recognise Pakistan’s independence in 1947. Relations remained positive throughout the 50s and 60s with both states falling under the US defence umbrella as signatories to the Baghdad Pact and subsequent creation of CENTO.

The Iranian revolution in 1979 coincided with the strengthening of the nominally Islamist Zia ul-Haq regime in Pakistan and the two sides maintained a practical working relationship despite the anti-US stance of the new government in the Islamic Republic. Both states cooperate in shared multi-lateral initiatives, such as the Economic Cooperation Organisation, Non-Aligned Movement and D8 group of developing nations, and share a number of joint regional concerns as highlighted below.

Baluchi separatists

The issue of Baluchi separatism is a good starting point in light of recent events in the region. The Baluchi ethnic group are split between Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and there has been separatist agitation resulting in open conflict several times in Pakistan‘s history since independence. In Iran, Baluchi separatists have been less prominent historically, but armed groups have stepped up attacks in the last 10 years. The armed group Junduallah carried out several attacks on Iranian forces stationed in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province from 2004, prior to their leader Abdolmalek Rigi being captured and executed by Iran in 2010.

The capture of Iranian border guards earlier this month, along with the killing of 14 Iranian soldiers in November, was claimed by the hitherto little known group Jaish ul-Adl, formed in January 2012.

In keeping with the previous statements of Jundullah, their actions are framed within the wider sectarian divide that is resurgent across the Middle East. Claims of discrimination against Sunni groups within Iran are often given as a pretext for the actions of groups such as Jaish ul-Adl as a means of garnering wider support.

Iran has frequently raised concerns with harbouring of Jundullah and Jaish ul-Adl militants on Pakistani territory, and it is within this context that recent Iranian comments regarding unilateral actions across the border to maintain its security have been made. Despite the potential for conflict, the subsequent talks held between Iranian and Pakistani representatives since the kidnappings have been largely cordial, with a focus on joint measures aimed at securing the hostages’ release and further cooperation in enhancing the security of the border region. Iranian unilateral action will most likely be held off providing they receive assurances from Pakistan that they are taking the matter seriously. At this time, the Iranian government has been assured by its Pakistani counterparts that they are taking the matter seriously and that troops will be sent by Pakistan to Baluchistan to search for the hostages.


This brings us to the sensitive issue of sectarianism and its place in relations between Iran and Pakistan. The Islamic Republic has historically favoured a pragmatic quiescence on sectarian tensions within Pakistan, seeing it as a domestic issue. This should come as no great surprise to Iran watchers, as despite the media focus on its patronage of Hezbollah in Lebanon and attempts to depict the avowedly secular Assad regime in Syria as ‘co-religionists,’ Iran has displayed pragmatism on a number of issues that defy its image as a revolutionary actor supporting its Shi’i brethren. Its support for Christian Armenia over predominantly Shi’i Azerbaijan in their conflict over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region (in part an outcome of the need to dampen potential separatist agitation amongst its own Azeri population) is a case in point.

Furthermore, Pakistan’s Shi’i community is not involved in any notable separatist agitation, and thus Iran has been able to build on its confessional linkages in a more benign manner, primarily through its cultural centres and the work of the Islamic Culture and Research Organisation (ICRO). The ICRO runs Iran’s cultural bureaus abroad, and is directly accountable to the Supreme Leader, thus providing a useful diplomatic tool and an extension of Iranian soft power right from the most important centre of power in the Iranian political system.

It’s worth noting that Pakistan is home to the largest number of Iranian cultural bureaus in the world, with 8 centres in total run by the ICRO, providing cultural activities such as Persian language classes, religious commemorations and joint activities with Pakistani cultural organisations. Persian culture, particularly in art and literature, has a strong tradition in Pakistan, and the cultural links between the nations are an oft-repeated theme returned to time and again in official meetings between the two states.


On Afghanistan, there has long been potential for disagreement as both sides have supported different sides in that state’s protracted internal conflict. Iran has long provided material support to the often persecuted Shi’i Hazara minority in Afghanistan, and was a key ally, along with Russia, of the Northern Alliance in its fight against the Pakistan-backed Taliban prior to the arrival of coalition forces in 2001. Despite this, there is not any sense of any kind of war by proxy being fought here and both states are served far better by a stable Afghanistan, particularly in light of the huge number of refugees that they have both absorbed over the last 35 years.

Although they have historically backed different sides, the arrival of coalition forces and Pakistan’s ongoing internal struggle with its own Taliban wing in the form of the TTP has necessitated a shift in its direct patronage of the Afghan Taliban. Since the Taliban’s ouster in Afghanistan, the Islamic Republic has gradually increased its influence in the country, particularly in the East and North which are culturally and linguistically proximate to Iran. Furthermore, while Iran-Afghan relations have been broadly positive, the Karzai government has had a tricky relationship with Pakistan in light of its links with the Taliban regime. Thus, any incorporation of moderate Taliban elements in a future Afghan government may well serve Pakistan’s interests. To this end, accommodation through recognition of informal spheres of influence could serve relations between Iran and Pakistan well, with the latter extending its influence to Afghanistan’s Pashtun heartlands as a means of enhancing control over its porous frontier with that country.

Pipeline Politics

A further feature of Iran-Pakistan relations has been the long-running negotiations taking place over Iran’s supplying of natural gas to Pakistan. The pipeline was initially billed as the ‘peace pipeline’ as it was due to transport Iranian natural gas to India, via Pakistan. However, negotiations predictably floundered, and Iran has focused instead on pursuing bi-lateral initiatives with each state in terms of providing access to its hydrocarbon resources. The Iran-Pakistan pipeline was signed off in 2009, with construction on the Iranian side now largely complete; however, the project has been beset by delays on the Pakistani side. A key concern is that this would mean Pakistani circumvention of the US-led sanctions regime against Iran, which would further complicate its already difficult current relationship with the United States. Keen to increase its export market, Iran had also offered to provide funding for the construction of the pipeline in Pakistan but had to withdraw this offer due to its own financial problems.

Both sides had recently been looking at ways to revive the stalled project, but Pakistan has now stated that it cannot continue with its side of the deal due to the sanctions currently in place against the Islamic Republic. For the time being, Pakistan has decided that the likely penalties for not complying with the sanctions regime outweigh access to Iran’s natural gas. The current PML-N government in Pakistan also has particularly close relations with Saudi Arabia, which many feel has exerted pressure on Pakistan to abandon the project. This is where the current nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 become influential – if a deal is struck whereby sanctions are lifted, then Pakistan will have greater freedom to act and may be less inclined to follow the advice of its Saudi allies.

Wider geopolitics

The last point takes us to the wider geopolitical currents that also have a bearing on relations between Iran and Pakistan, particularly in light of the US and Saudi positions. Although there was a noticeable détente in Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia under Rafsanjani and into the Khatami era, relations between the two states have dipped considerably in recent years. This is not only due to the recent entrenchment of the sectarian divide in the Middle East, and subsequent proxy battles for control among competing belligerents in its myriad conflicts, but also a result of increased Iranian confidence in its position in the region following the fall of two hostile neighbouring regimes in the form of Saddam’s Iraq and Taliban Afghanistan. Pakistan-Saudi relations have been traditionally close, however, this has not significantly hampered relations thus far with Iran (the pipeline issue notwithstanding).

Indeed, Pakistan sees itself as something of a mediator between the two and has given Iran assurances that it will not assist in Saudi nuclear arms development. Similarly, Iran’s good relations with India are not a hugely destabilising force in the Iran-Pakistan relationship. Iran has trod a careful line on Kashmir, offering rhetorical support for the Muslim population there but little more as it desires good relations with India. Both sides therefore have potential bargaining chips, but pragmatism has prevailed.

Pakistan’s at times troubled relationship with the US, while a significant influence as noted above vis-à-vis the pipeline issue, has also been largely put to one side in dealings between the two states, with the focus being primarily on bi-lateral and regional concerns. Interestingly, the domestic unpopularity of Pakistan’s historical alignment with US foreign policy objectives is borne out by the high esteem with which the Pakistani population holds the Islamic Republic. A 2013 global attitudes survey conducted by Pew saw 69% of Pakistanis surveyed as viewing Iran favourably, with Indonesia the only other country to record a majority holding a favourable view of the Islamic Republic with 55%.

A complex relationship where common-sense prevails

The above points to a relationship that is fraught with potential difficulties and open to manipulation of competing agendas. Both states are, perhaps sometimes unfairly, painted as problem cases in the international system with powerful internal tendencies (be they official or unofficial) that seek to challenge the international status quo. This, along with the above external and internal pressures makes the continued common-sense approach of both governments laudable at a time when opposing views, be they religious/sectarian in nature, or security-driven are sustaining some of the world’s bitterest conflicts.

The relationship between the two states is founded on a pragmatic need to maintain a working relationship despite differing security alignments, more pressing concerns within their own ‘regions,’ and a lack of ideological confluence. Yes, there will always be competing pressures but the relationship has been largely characterised by tactful diplomacy when bellicosity could easily prevail. Despite the firm statements coming from Iran with regards to the recent kidnappings and Pakistan’s responsibility for ensuring the soldiers’ safe return, both sides have sought to work together on this issue. Furthermore, the recent upturn in the trajectory of Iran’s relations with the West, although still dependent on a mutually agreeable outcome of the nuclear talks, will also help keep ties on a sound footing.