IRSHAD SALIM (Sep 1, 2018): Days before planned visit of US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee General Joseph F. Dunford to Islamabad next week for talks on Afghanistan crisis and ongoing peace efforts, regional and international players are looking for cues on newly-elected Prime minister Imran Khan’s talking points on these issues.
On Thursday, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif arrived in Islamabad for a two-day visit, and held detailed talks with his Pakistani counterpart Shah Mahmood Qureshi. On Friday, Mr. Zarif called on PM Khan and delivered a message of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, inviting the Prime Minister for the upcoming Asian Cooperation Dialogue Summit in Iran in October this year.
Detailed discussions were held on regional and global issues, including the situation in Afghanistan and the United States’ decision to unilaterally withdraw from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — more commonly referred to as the Iran nuclear deal. The US government had also reinstated all sanctions waived as part of the nuclear accord and imposed additional economic penalties as well.
During the talks on Friday, Qureshi “supported Iran’s principled stance” and expressed the hope that remaining parties to the Iran deal would uphold their commitments. The foreign minister, according to the press release, reiterated that Pakistan stands with Iran “in this hour of need”.
FM Zarif also called on Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa at the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi. According to Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), regional security situation and other matters of mutual interest were discussed.
The army’s media wing said the visiting dignitary “acknowledged and appreciated Pakistan’s contributions for conflict prevention in the region”.
China and Russia have already stated several times that Pakistan’s counterterrorism efforts needs to be appreciated by the international community as well.
Iran’s latest statement therefore dovetails critical regional players’ stance on Pakistan’s ongoing efforts to fight off terrorism and closes the gap in “do more” mantra oft mentioned in US and Afghanistan statements.
Iran has been warming up to Pakistan after remaining lukewarm for decades and potentially sees its neighbor as part of the emerging regional bloc that could include Russia and China. Iran this year celebrated Pakistan’s Independence Day in an unprecedented manner, displaying large greeting hoardings along major highways in Iranian cities and on electronic screens in their public transport system.
The Iranian FM’s trip ahead of US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee General Joseph F. Dunford’s visit to Islamabad next week for talks with their counterparts and with Prime Minister Imran Khan is therefore significant, observers say.
The developing yin yang will bolster Pakistan’s stance that it would only ally with the US for peace in Afghanistan. This leaves less room for others to seek military solution in Afghanistan while advancing agenda for peace with the Taliban, and at the same time seek permanent seat in the country to influence the region witnessing growing clout of the Chinese and the Russians.
Both Pakistan and Iran face pressures from the US for different reasons though. While the Trump administration wants Pakistan to side with its Afghan strategy which Pakistan terms as flawed, President Trump has slapped sanctions against Iran –effectively it will kick in November.
So while Pakistan stands with Iran ‘in this hour of need’, the same narrative Iran holds for Pakistan conversely.
Zarif being the first foreign leader to visit Pakistan after the assumption of office by the PTI-led coalition government is indicative of where the two governments are heading to with respect to peace and connectivity in the region –en bloc with China and Russia — both nations have increased their diplomatic role in Afghanistan.
PM Khan recalled the “inseparable bonds” connecting Pakistan and Iran together and said that during his government he would make all efforts to cement these relations in various areas to the benefit of both countries.
Emphasizing the importance of Pakistan and Iran in the region, PM Khan said the two countries remained the key to growth and prosperity in the region through enhancing connectivity and promoting people to people linkages.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani soon after Mr Khan’s inauguration sent in a felicitations message and invited him to visit Iran which the latter accepted.
The litmus test of both countries closing in would be the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline which remains on the side-burner due to US pressure.
(The author is a business consultant, analyst and Editor-in-Chief of PKonweb, DesPardes and BE2C2 Report)