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Iran & South Asia #1: Pakistan’s Delicate Balancing Act

Interview with Moeed Yusuf

What is the status of relations between the Pakistan’s Sunni-dominated government and Iran’s Shiite theocracy under the new leaders, who both were elected in mid-2013? How do Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif get along? On what issues do they collaborate? On what issues are they divided?
            Iran’s relationship with Pakistan is both cooperative and competitive. The neighbors coordinate on issues like trade and border security while often diverging on foreign policy. But Prime Minister Sharif and President Rouhani seem committed to improving bilateral relations.
      In September 2013, the leaders met on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York. “Pakistan and Iran enjoy [good] relations that are deeply rooted in historical, cultural and religious commonalities,” Sharif told Rouhani. Pakistanis generally have a positive view of their Western neighbor. A 2013 Pew poll found that 69 percent of Pakistanis had a favorable view of Iran, the highest percentage of 39 countries polled worldwide on perceptions of the Islamic Republic.
            ECONOMY: During their meeting, Sharif told Rouhani that Pakistan especially wanted to improve economic ties. Both leaders emphasized their commitment to completing a multi-billion-dollar pipeline to deliver Iranian natural gas to Pakistan. The two countries, however, have long expressed grand aspirations for economic cooperation that have not materialized.
In 1964 Iran, Pakistan and Turkey established the Regional Cooperation for Development organization to promote trade, development and investment among the three countries. Its successor, the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), expanded membership in 1992 to include seven other neighboring states. In November 2013, Iran took over ECO’s rotating chairmanship at a ministerial meeting in Tehran.
           Pakistan has long viewed Iran, along with Afghanistan, as a potential gateway to trade with Western Asia. Yet Iran-Pakistan trade only amounts to some $1 billion annually. The two countries hope to boost trade to $5 billion by 2016.
            REGIONAL ISSUES: But on many foreign affairs issues, Iran and Pakistan fall into opposing blocs. Pakistan is aligned with two of Iran’s chief adversaries, Saudi Arabia and the United States. Islamabad’s relationship with Washington is a particularly prickly issue for Tehran. But Pakistan wants to avoid getting caught in potential crossfire between and Tehran and Washington. Pakistan does not want another war on its border, so it opposes any military strike on Iran and tries to balance its relations with both countries. Pakistan’s Embassy in Washington actually hosts the Iranian interests section.
           Pakistan is also particularly concerned about Iran’s relationship with India. New Delhi has reportedly invested $100 million in Iran’s southeastern port of Chabahar (below), which enables Indian exports to Iran and landlocked Afghanistan to bypass Pakistan. Chabahar is just 44 miles west of Pakistan’s Gwadar port and may help India expand trade ties into Central Asia. New Delhi has also reportedly invested in Afghan highways to Iran that would reduce Afghanistan’s dependence on Pakistan. India would also be less dependent on land routes through Pakistan to trade with Afghanistan.
            RELIGIOUS ISSUES: A major sticking point between Pakistan and Iran is sectarian violence. Iran is particularly concerned about violence against Pakistan’s Shiite minority. Tehran alleges that Saudi promotion of hardline Wahhabi ideology among Pakistanis has inspired Sunni groups to attack Shiites. But many Pakistani experts consider Sunni-Shiite violence to be partly a product of a proxy war between Tehran and Riyadh.
Pakistan became the world’s first Muslim nuclear power in the early 1970s and later built first nuclear weapons in the Islamic world. What is Islamabad’s view of Iran’s controversial nuclear program?
            Islamabad generally supports Iran’s right to a peaceful nuclear energy program. Most Pakistanis find fault with the West’s approach to the Iranian nuclear dispute.
      But Islamabad would most likely oppose Tehran weaponizing its nuclear program. Pakistan’s regional clout would likely wane if another one of its four neighbors — in addition to China and India— attained nuclear weapons. Pakistan denies widespread suspicions that Saudi Arabia may be interested in receiving assistance in the nuclear field or with some form of defense against a future Iranian nuclear weapons capability. Islamabad does not want to get embroiled in a wider conflict and would thus want to avoid any development that could escalate the situation.
            At the same time, Pakistan would almost certainly not condone an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. A U.S. or Israeli strike could lead to increased turbulence on Pakistan’s southwestern border. In short, Islamabad is in an unenviable position. It is caught in the middle and does not want to upset Washington, Riyadh or Tehran.
Tehran and Islamabad have both tried to gain influence in war-torn Afghanistan since the 1970s. What issues have the two countries cooperated on? What has divided them?
           Tehran and Islamabad have backed rival constituencies in Afghanistan. Iran has historically supported the Shiite Hazara minority to gain a foothold of influence. And it has invested in developing the western province of Herat (below). Afghanistan was a particularly contentious issue for Pakistan-Iran relations in the 1990s. Tehran opposed the Taliban, the Pakistan-backed group of extremists who took over the country in 1996. Shiite Iran nearly went to war against the Sunni Taliban after the massacre Afghan Shiites and several Iranian diplomats in Mazar-e-Sharif in 1998.
      Tehran’s influence in Afghanistan cannot compare to Islamabad’s. Pakistan has deep ethnic and historical ties to Afghanistan going back thousands of years and a geographical advantage that is difficult to challenge. The Pashtun ethnic group, long dominant in Afghan politics, is also spread across Pakistan’s northern provinces and that bond runs deep at the people-to-people level even though state relations are not always cordial.
           Islamabad’s clout, however, has partially waned since the 2001 U.S. invasion. Both Tehran and India have stepped up efforts to back constituencies that have traditionally been on the opposite side of Pakistan’s preferred partners in Afghanistan.
           At the same time, Pakistan and Iran have cooperated in the fight against drug smuggling from Afghanistan. Both countries are gateways for exporting opiates to Europe and other overseas markets. Domestic drug use also is fast becoming a serious problem in Pakistan and Iran.
Iran and Pakistan first discussed plans to jointly build a nearly 1,000-mile natural gas pipeline in 1994. Nearly two decades later, Iran is close to finishing the 560 mile portion on its side of the border. But Pakistan is lagging behind. What were the goals? How does it influence Iran-Pakistani relations, whether diplomatic, commercial or security? What are the current obstacles and constraints—and why?
            Starting in the 1990s, Pakistan began searching for regional options to better meet its population’s energy demands. The pipeline offered an opportunity for Iran to more efficiently transfer natural gas to its eastern neighbor. Pakistan’s petroleum ministry projected annual savings of $2.4 billion on gas that could generate 4,000 megawatts of power. Completion of the pipeline might have improved commercial relations between the two countries. But divergent foreign policies probably would have kept the two from becoming close allies. The pipeline would have been more of an insurance policy to keep them from falling out.
            The main obstacles to completion are U.S. and E.U. sanctions on Iran’s energy sector. Pakistan could incur stiff financial penalties for importing gas from Iran. Washington has tried to persuade Pakistan to investigate alternative ways to meets its energy demands.
            Pakistan also faces numerous logistical obstacles to construction. It has struggled to finance construction of its part of the pipeline. In October, Islamabad even asked cash-strapped Iran for $2 billon to help builds its side of the pipeline. Actual construction of the pipeline may also prove difficult because the planned route crosses the restive Balochistan region.
            Pakistan also has less of an incentive to complete the project since India dropped out of the project in 2009, reportedly due to U.S. pressure. Observers initially dubbed the project the “peace pipeline” in hopes that it would promote better India-Pakistan relations. Islamabad was particularly interested in valuable revenue from transit fees. That said, the formal agreement between Iran and Pakistan on the pipeline implies that Islamabad must build its part of the infrastructure or pay heavy damages to Iran. So if Pakistan has to get out, it has to find a creative way of calling off the deal. During the November ECO meeting, officials from both countries agreed to fast track talks on the pipeline and chart a more realistic time frame for construction.
Iran’s 500-mile border with Pakistan runs through the homeland of the Baloch —a Sunni ethnic group that has waged a decades-long insurgency against both countries. How have the two countries cooperated on this issue? 
            Both countries oppose Balochi aspirations for independence. Iran is particularly concerned that the Balochi secessionist movement in Pakistan could spill over into its own Sistan-Balochistan province. Some Iranian officials have been skeptical about Pakistan’s commitment to cracking down on Jundallah, an armed Balochi separatist group. Tehran has alleged that Jundallah stages attacks on Iranian forces from sanctuaries on the Pakistani side of the border. Despite Iranian suspicions, Tehran and Islamabad have quietly cooperated on counterterrorism operations.
           But tensions flared in late October after an armed group ambushed and killed 14 Iranian border guards. “The fact that such incidents take place on the border and bandits retreat to the neighboring country after committing their crimes make that country [Pakistan] responsible and it cannot shirk responsibility,” warned Deputy Foreign Minister for Consular and Iranian Expatriates Affairs Hassan Qashqavi. Some officials want Iranian forces to be able to pursue armed groups retreating into Pakistani territory. Neither side, however, has any interest in letting their disagreement over this issue boil over.
Moeed W. Yusuf is director of South Asia Programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace. 
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Photo Credits: President.ir, NuclearEnergy.ir, Herat city by Fazl Ahmad (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons, Iran-Pakistan Pipeline via VOA


Rouhani Calls for National Consensus

      On December 7, President Hassan Rouhani called for national consensus on his goals to improve relations with the outside world and reinvigorate the economy. He also pledged to defend Iran’s nuclear program in a speech at Tehran’s Shahid Beheshti University.  “Nuclear energy is our absolute right, yes, but the right to progress, development, improving people’s livelihood and welfare are also our rights,” Rouhani told more than 1,000 students. Iran observes Students’ Day annually on December 7 to commemorate the 1953 killing of three University of Tehran students protesting a visit by U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon.

           Students groups from opposing political currents shouted slogans over each other. Some reformists called for the end of the “security atmosphere” and release of political prisoners, especially former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi and former parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karroubi, the leaders of the opposition Green Movement. Conservative members of the Basij militia chanted “Death to America.” Rouhani tried to calm the students, arguing that Iranians need to tolerate each other before moving to solve complex foreign policy issues. The following are excerpts and a video clip from Rouhani’s speech.
Nuclear Program and Diplomacy
            “We need to strike the right balance between idealism and realism. There are those who want to close the gateways to this country. We know that is impossible… You all witnessed who became isolated after the Geneva agreement – the warmongers and those who don’t respect international law.”
            “Our centrifuges should spin, the economic life of people should spin too… Atomic energy, as well as nuclear technologies and enriching uranium are our rights.”
Domestic Infighting
            “This government is committed to all its promises, but we need internal consensus. We need to more tolerant, rational and avoid being too emotional… If we cannot solve a domestic issue of our own with calm, with reason and within the framework of the constitution by creating a consensus, if we cannot solve domestic issues, how can we claim we want to solve the complex issues of the region and the world?”
            “To take a step forward, it’s key to be more tolerant of differences, more rational and moderate in our beliefs.”
            The administration is “supporting entrepreneurship to develop a knowledge economy. The government set aside $1 billion for the Innovation Fund’s knowledge-based companies.”
            “We should create an environment that not only discourages people from leaving, but also encourages those who have left to come back to Iran.”
            “Indeed from the constitutional movement to now, students have played a key role in Iran’s journey towards independence and self-determination… Students have always been pioneers in pursuing freedom and offering constructive criticism.”


Poll: Americans Divided on Nuclear Agreement

            Some 43 percent of Americans disapprove of the interim deal on Iran’s nuclear program while 32 percent approve, according to a new poll by the Pew Research Center and USA Today. The remaining quarter of respondents did not offer an opinion. Half of the Democrats polled approve of the agreement compared to only 14 percent of Republicans.
      The survey found that 72 percent of Americans had heard either a lot or a little about the deal brokered in Geneva on November 23. Among those who heard a lot about it, 44 percent approve and 51 percent disapprove. Among those who heard a little, 36 percent approve and 45 percent disapprove.
      The agreement has not reduced broad skepticism towards the intentions of Iran’s leaders. Washington and Tehran have not relations for 34 years. Nearly two-thirds of Americans say Iranian leaders are “not serious” about addressing the international community’s concerns about their nuclear program.

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Report: Iran’s Missiles Raise Tensions in Gulf

            Iran has raised tensions in the Middle East by increasing the number, range and capability of its rockets and missiles, according to an updated report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Tehran’s “missile and rocket forces help compensate for its lack of effective air power and allow it to pose a threat to its neighbors and U.S. forces,” the report warns.
The interim agreement reached by Iran and the world’s six major powers in November could be a key step toward a “major breakthrough in eliminating this [nuclear] threat and laying the groundwork for broader easing of tensions in the region,” the report noted. But in the years potentially needed to reach an agreement and ensure full compliance, Tehran could develop conventional armed missiles that could hit key targets in the Gulf. The following is a summary of the report by Iran Primer author Anthony Cordesman and Bryan Gold.   

Iran and The Gulf Military Balance II: The Nuclear and Missile Dimensions
            The report shows that Iran’s current missile and rocket forces help compensate for its lack of effective air power and allow it to pose a threat to its neighbors and U.S. forces that could affect their willingness to strike Iran should Iran use its capabilities for asymmetric warfare in the Gulf or against any of its neighbors. At another level, Iran’s steady increase in the number, range, and capability of its rocket and missile forces has increased the level of tension in the Gulf, and in other regional states like Turkey, Jordan, and Israel. Iran has also shown that it will transfer long-range rockets to “friendly” or “proxy” forces like the Hezbollah and Hamas.
            At a far more threatening level, the report shows that Iran has acquired virtually every element of a nuclear breakout capability before the recently minted interim agreement was reached in Geneva, except the fissile material needed to make a weapon. This threat led to a growing “war of sanctions,” and Israeli and U.S. threats of preventive strikes. Concurrently, the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear programs cannot be separated from the threat posed by Iran’s growing capabilities for asymmetric warfare in the Gulf and along all of its borders.
It is far from clear that either the latest negotiations or sanctions can succeed in limiting Iran’s ability to acquire nuclear weapons and deploy nuclear-armed missiles; however, the report shows that military options offer uncertain alternatives. Both Israel and the U.S. have repeatedly stated that they are planning and ready for military options that could include preventive strikes on at least Iran’s nuclear facilities, and that U.S. strikes might cover a much wider range of missile facilities and other targets.
            A preventive war might trigger a direct military confrontation or conflict in the Gulf with little warning. It might also lead to at least symbolic Iranian missile strikes on U.S. basing facilities, GCC targets, or Israel. Moreover, it could lead to much more serious covert and proxy operations in Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, the rest of the Gulf, and other areas.
Furthermore, unless preventive strikes were reinforced by a lasting regime of follow-on strikes, they could trigger a much stronger Iranian effort to actually acquire and deploy nuclear weapons and/or Iranian rejection of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and negotiations. The U.S., in contrast, might deem that it has no choice other than to maintain a military overwatch and restrike capability to ensure Iran could not carry out such a program and rebuild its nuclear capabilities or any other capabilities that were attacked.
            The end result is that Israel, the U.S., and Arab states cannot choose between preventive war and containment. Unless Iran fundamentally changes its present course, the choice is between preventive strike and containment, or containment alone. Preventive strikes may be able to delay Iran for a given period of time, but if Iran seeks to rebuild it nuclear capabilities, then Israel, the U.S., and Arab will have to strengthen their missile and other defenses, develop great retaliatory capabilities, and/or restrike every new Iranian effort towards nuclear weapons.
            Finally, Volume II: The Nuclear and Missile Dimensions shows that a nuclear arms race already exists between Israel and Iran - albeit one where only Israel now has a nuclear strike capability. The practical problem this raises for Iran - and for stabilizing this arms race - is that it will face a possible Israeli first strike option until it can secure its nuclear armed forces. This pushes it towards a concealed or breakout deployment, and an initial phase where it would have to launch on warning or under attack until it has a survivable force. It then must compete with powers with far larger stockpiles which include boosted and thermonuclear weapons until it can create a more sophisticated force of its own. The options will result in a high-risk arms race, particularly during its initial years, for all sides and do so regardless of the level of containment.
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Zarif Tries to Calm Nervous Gulf States

            Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tried to calm Gulf states nervous about the Geneva nuclear agreement and Iran’s regional aspirations. Zarif kicked off his first official tour of the Sunni sheikhdoms with a visit to Kuwait on December 1. “Be assured that the nuclear deal is in favor of the stability and security of the region,” he told the press after meeting with Sheikh Sabah Khaled al Sabah. Zarif also attended the Manama Dialogue Regional Security Summit in Bahrain and visited Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

            President Hassan Rouhani’s government has stepped up its outreach efforts to the Gulf since the interim nuclear agreement was brokered on November 24. Just four days after the negotiations concluded, UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed visited Tehran to discuss three disputed islands in the Gulf. On December 4, Zarif visited the UAE and President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan accepted an invitation to visit Tehran.
            The monarchies fear a comprehensive deal on Iran’s nuclear program that would leave it with a residual capability to eventually build a bomb. But they are also concerned that an agreement could allow Tehran to shed its pariah status and reemerge as a Gulf powerhouse. The following are excerpted remarks by Zarif and Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed al Khalifa.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif
            “We believe that a new era has begun in ties between Iran and regional states which should turn into a new chapter of amicable relations through efforts by all regional countries.”
            Dec. 1, 2013 in a meeting with Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Khalid al Hamad al-Sabah 
      “We believe that Iran and Saudi Arabia should work together in order to promote peace and stability in the region… This agreement cannot be at the expense of any country in the region. Our relations with Saudi Arabia should expand as we consider Saudi Arabia as an extremely important country in the region and the Islamic world… I am ready to go to Saudi Arabia, but it is just a matter of being able to arrange a mutually convenient time. I will visit it soon inshallah [God willing].
      “We expressed our appreciation for the very central and positive role that the [Omani] sultanate had played in facilitating these talks.”
            Dec. 1, 2013 to the press in Doha, Qatar
            “Iran’s ties with Oman are special… We feel that the relations among countries of the region should be built on mutual trust and enhancing the friendship bonds among them. The cooperation and common grounds in various theological, cultural, geographic, economic and political fields will help us build the ties.”         
            Atomic weapons are “illegal, immoral and non-human. We believe nuclear weapons harm our national security. We do not need any nuclear weapon at any level.”
Entering an arms race would be “a sort of suicide.”
            Dec. 2, 2013 in a meeting with Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Said
Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed al Khalifa
            “We’ve clearly seen a change in Iranian language. But I don’t think we have seen a very clear change of policy. Maybe there’s one that led to the interim agreement, which is something that we welcome, and will hopefully reach a good and sustainable comprehensive agreement. But we still have a problem, Iran-Bahrain. We haven’t seen any progress on that.”
            “I would like to see Iran send the very clear message by taking serious actions and steps that would allay the fears of the regional countries regarding interferences with internal affairs and supporting terrorist groups inside those countries.”

            Dec. 8, 2013 in an interview with Al-Monitor


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