By Aqil Nadeem
July 23, 2020
Two Joint Investigation Team (JIT) reports, one released by the federal minister for maritime affairs, Ali Haider Zaidi, and the other by Sindh’s provincial administration, corroborate each other’s sensational findings about Uzair Baloch, who remained a notorious underworld figure in Karachi for years. The report issued by Zaidi, however, also highlighted Baloch’s influence on the Pakistan Peoples Party, though this portion was seemingly excised from the document circulated by the Sindh government.
Both reports gave us a glimpse into Baloch’s relationship with Iran. According to the report Uzair claimed to be in possession of an Iranian passport and was in contact with the neighboring country’s intelligence agencies. The reports reveal that he was tasked to collect information on Pakistan Army’s deployment in Karachi, military officials and key military installations in the city.
It is not important which JIT report is true since both of them contain startling revelations about Iran. Zaidi said that the report was released after it was shown to Prime Minister Imran Khan, implying that its circulation received a tacit approval from the highest political office in the country and its release was meant to signal the government’s intent and policy both to the general public as well as Iran. This explosive approach to delicate diplomatic matters is counterproductive and should have been avoided, especially given our recent history of difficult relations with the Middle Eastern state.
To give a background of the current relations between the two countries, Indian spy Kulbhushan Jadhav used Iran as a transit route to enter Pakistan and commissioned wide ranging terrorist activities in Balochistan. The heavily fortified and secured border between the two neighboring states could not have been crossed without the help of Iranian border officials. Furthermore, during the time of the Taliban rule in Afghanistan, Pakistan gave diplomatic and economic support to the group, resulting in regular demonstrations in Tehran against Pakistan and the burning of the Pakistani flag. Given that Iran is fully under the control of the revolutionary regime, such anti-Pakistan sentiment could not have been possible without Tehran’s approval and hence this reflects its official policy toward Pakistan back then.
This animosity between Pakistan and Iran is largely a product of the Iranian Revolution since friendly relations were a norm during the reign of Reza Shah Pahlavi. Iran was the first country to recognize Pakistan, and the Shah was the first foreign leader who traveled to it. Iran supported Pakistan during the 1965 war with India, providing medical and economic assistance. It also provided 5,000 tons of oil to Pakistan and hinted at stopping oil exports to India.
According to the website of the Iranian embassy in Islamabad, Tehran also bought 90 Sabre jet fighters from West Germany and handed them over to Pakistan to augment the defense capability of the South Asian state after the war with India came to an end, though such cooperation was never announced by either of them. We do not have any third-party confirmation of it as well.
Both Pakistan and pre-revolutionary Iran were active members of the Organization for Regional Cooperation and Development (RCD) and maintained deep economic, social, and cultural ties with each other. As an example, Iranian cultural centers were established in Pakistan’s major cities where Persian was taught and cultural activities were promoted. In this period, there was no sectarian tension between the two countries.
Travel and tourism expanded between the two neighboring states, and a great deal of sincerity was also visible in their growing relationship. Both countries remained firmly in the Western camp throughout the Cold War, with defense relations growing stronger after President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s coup d’état in Egypt, which triggered fears of overthrow among monarchies across the region. Iran also explicitly supported Pakistan in the 1971 War, condemning India and by providing full diplomatic support to Pakistan.
The relations should ideally have strengthened after the revolution. Unfortunately, the relations developed doubts and became cold. Iran, like any young revolutionary set-up, was keen to export its new political outlook to neighboring states. Pakistan was also taken over by a military general who used religion to strengthen his grip over the polity. With religious forces at the helm in both countries, the foundations of their relations were shaken for the first time.
Things became worse during the “Afghan Jihad” and the Taliban rule and animosity became visible even at public level. Iranian diplomat, cadets murdered and abducted in Pakistani city of Multan in 1997 resulting in similar life threatening situations for Pakistani diplomats in Iran. Protests outside the Pakistan embassy in Tehran became a common occurrence, and Pakistani consulates’ operations within Iran were impeded by constant harassment by city officials. This practice still continues to varying degrees until today.
Throughout this diplomatic rift, Iran grew closer to India by deepening economic and social ties. The two countries also started looking at the evolving regional issues by the same lens. While subscribing to Indian concerns over the Gwadar port and agreeing to reduce its importance, Iran allowed India to invest heavily in the completion of its Chabahar port.
Senior Pakistani diplomats familiar with the Iran-Pakistan relations maintain that Tehran never liked Pakistan to become a nuclear power since this shifted primacy in the Muslim world further away from Iran.
Uzair Baloch’s revelations showed us that the Iranian government had a special interest in Karachi and Tehran may have been involved in creating unrest in Pakistan’s commercial hub, whether on its own behalf or at the behest of the Indian administration.
It is also yet to be determined whether the publishing of the JIT report was meant to be a warning to Iran or it was simply another case of political point-scoring against the opposition.
In any case, such public accusations against Iran can further strain relations and have a destabilizing impact on the region. It would have been more prudent to quietly express such concerns while efforts are being made to rekindle ties with Iran — something that the Pakistani prime minister tried during his visit to Tehran last year.
It is true that Pakistan’s national interests must be protected at all cost, but the best course to achieve that objective is through diplomacy, not by publishing intelligence reports, leveling accusations in public.