At Odds with U.S., Islamic Republics Iran and Pakistan Forge New Ties

With the complete collapse of Afghanistan's 20-year U.S.-backed Islamic Republic and the Taliban constructing a new Islamic Emirate, two neighboring Islamic Republics with strained ties to Washington are forging increasingly tight ties in hopes of securing stability in an uncertain region.

Iran and Pakistan have a history of cooperating on practical terms even when they have been at odds. Today, they're establishing more common ground in the absence of U.S. troops stationed between them. And beyond the issue in Afghanistan, they've found additional ways of working together.

"Iran and Pakistan have many common goals in the region and the Islamic world, from peace and stability in the region, including Afghanistan, which is the immediate neighbor of both countries, to the promotion of bilateral cooperation in various economic, cultural and political fields," Hamaneh Karimi-Kia, head of the press section at Tehran's embassy in Islamabad, told Newsweek.

One major area of mutual concern is the long border they share between them, a boundary that has hosted separatist groups waging insurgencies against both nations. Concerns over a rise in non-state actor activity have mounted since the change of power in Afghanistan, and both Iran and Pakistan are seeking to better administer their border by clamping down on threats and bolstering trade.

"The two countries have cooperated well in the management of border issues," Karimi-Kia added, "including border security, increasing the number of border crossings and managing border trade."

She noted, however, that "bilateral trade between Iran and Pakistan is currently far from the existing capacities, and the two countries are working together to increase the level of economic relations."

Last year, the two countries opened up two new border crossings at Rimdan-Gabd and Pishin-Mand, and an April memorandum of understanding has led to the opening of three markets in the Balochistan border region to pave the way for promoting trade in the area. Further efforts to boost trade were discussed just last week by a joint committee, which agreed on new measures designed to bring the total value of exchanged goods to some $5 billion by 2023.

But insecurity continues to haunt such plans, and the two countries have demonstrated an eagerness to showcase how they are coming together on defense and military matters as well.

"Cooperation between Tehran and Islamabad is important for regional peace and stability," Karimi-Kia said. "The development of security diplomacy and the expansion of counter-terrorism cooperation between Iran and Pakistan have increased in recent years. Also, to protect the common borders, the two neighbors have developed security cooperation and cooperated in fighting against terrorist elements."

"The Islamic Republic of Iran has stated its desire to further strengthen military relations with the Pakistani military, especially in the areas of counter-terrorism and training," she added.

Pakistan, Imran, Khan, Iran, Ebrahim, Raisi, SCO
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi hold a discussion together on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization leaders' summit on September 16 in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Since taking office in August, Raisi has sought to strengthen Iran's ties with regional countries, and his trip to the SCO summit marked both his first foreign travel and the beginning of Iran's ascendance to full membership to a coalition that already includes China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, India, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the Islamic Republic of Pakistan

Tehran and Islamabad have traditionally been divided over Afghanistan. It was Pakistan that played a central role in assisting the CIA-backed mujahideen to win their war against the Soviet Union. And when the Taliban established its first Islamic Emirate a quarter of a century ago, Pakistan was the first to recognize the new government, followed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Iran, whose diplomats in Afghanistan's Mazar-e-Sharif were slaughtered amid the Taliban advance in the late 1990s, backed the anti-Taliban forces supported at the time by a number of nations, including Russia, India, Turkey and the post-Soviet republics of Central Asia.

Iran has also accused the Taliban of oppressing ethnic and religious minorities including the Shiite Muslim Hazara, some of whom have fled to majority-Shiite Muslim Iran and even joined Iran-backed militias, as have a number of Pakistani Shiite Muslims.

But today there is ample room for mutual assistance between Tehran and Islamabad, especially with more pressing threats at hand.

The restive region of Balochistan spans Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. It's home to nearly 20 million people, and yet Balochis represent a minority in all three countries. Some have taken up arms under the banner of groups such as the Balochistan Liberation Front, the Balochistan Liberation Army and Jundallah.

Pakistani Senator Mushahid Hussain, head of the Senate Defense Committee, said taking on these groups has been a key focus of talks between Islamabad and Tehran.

"There have been terrorists on both sides of the Pakistan-Iran border," Hussain told Newsweek, "some striking against Iran from our side, and some striking against Pakistan from Iran's side. So we have close border cooperation on counterterrorism."

Not all Iran-Pakistan defense initiatives have been strictly border-related, however.

One of the more high-profile bilateral advances on the security front occurred during last month's visit by Iran's most senior military official, Iranian Armed Forces Chief of Staff of Major-General Mohammad Bagheri, along with a defense delegation to Islamabad, where he met with his Pakistani counterpart General Qamar Javed Bajwa, naval commander Amjad Khan Niazi and head of state Prime Minister Imran Khan.

The two sides discussed ways to expand their military-technical ties, including the signing of an agreement to collaborate on the construction of warships and submarines.

The deal follows joint naval exercises in April and came at a time when tensions in the region also emerged at sea, as the U.S. sought to rally partners to form security blocs in the seas of Asia.

To the west, the U.S. works with Arab and other foreign powers to patrol the Persian Gulf as part of the International Maritime Security Construct, where the feud between Washington and Tehran has played out since the U.S. abandoned a multilateral nuclear deal and imposed heavy sanctions on Iranian industries.

To the east, the U.S. has teamed up with Australia, Japan and Pakistan's top foe, India, to form the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue to fortify their presence and those of U.S. allies from the Pacific to the Indian Oceans.

The latter bloc is ostensibly aimed at reining in China's broad territorial claims, as well as its growing military presence across the Pacific. But Islamabad, a close strategic partner of Beijing, has shared concerns on New Delhi's participation, given their tense dispute.

"We would be concerned if this kind of relationship of the U.S. with India becomes a relationship directed against any one country or a group of countries, or it is a throwback to the Cold War era, where there was a zero-sum game mindset," Hussain said. "Pakistan has always maintained a relationship of balance."

Both India and Pakistan have accused one another of fostering extremists to lash out at the other. Washington, once closely aligned with Islamabad in past decades, has weighed in heavily in favor of New Delhi in recent years, going as far as signing bilateral defense agreements.

"If India is now going to be part of a new kind of bloc politics or a new kind of a Cold War, you have what I would say, a very high cost and low return, and I could maybe say a no-return investment," Hussain said. "You're betting on the wrong horse, and that will have consequences."

When it came to the ongoing nuclear deal talks, Hussain shared a positive reaction to Iran's announcement that it sought to resume negotiations for a return of the U.S. to a seventh round of discussions set to take place on November 29 in the Austrian capital of Vienna.

He welcomed this development, and described aspirations to revive the accord as "very important" to the kind of regional stability that both Islamabad and Tehran have said they set out to achieve.

"It's like, pardon my saying so, you can't say a woman is half-pregnant, you can't have peace on one side and you don't have peace on the other side," Hussain said. "You have to have a comprehensive stability there. So with Iran, we have had good interaction."

Hussain also noted that an early goal of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who took office in August, has been to strengthen relations with neighboring and regional countries. This includes not only Pakistan, but also top powers China and Russia, and even warming ties with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have been on the other side of the simmering Persian Gulf feud.

Beijing's ties to both Islamabad and Tehran have especially been at the forefront of what Hussain calls "regional connectivity," something Pakistan "would like to promote."

Iran, Pakistan, border, guards, Taftan
In this photo taken on October 16, 2018, a Pakistani border security official (R) and an Iranian border official meet at Zero Point in the Pakistan-Iran border town of Taftan after at least 11 Iranian security personnel, including Revolutionary Guards intelligence officers, were abducted on the southeastern border with Pakistan two days earlier. Separatists have operated alongside both sides of the boundary between the two countries, presenting mutual security concerns. AFP/Getty Images

The interactions between the nations at the heart of Asia have been especially important given the fallout of the past few months in Afghanistan. The issue has been at the center of an array of meetings across the region involving Iran, Pakistan, China, Russia and others, but especially these four, all of which count themselves as members of a coalition known as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, or SCO.

The group was established in 2001, just months before the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan, and Raisi's trip to the SCO's leader's summit in Tajikistan marked Iran's transition from observer to full-time member.

"Membership of Iran in regional and international organisations has provided a good opportunity for improving cooperations with Pakistan and other countries," Iran's Karimi-Kia said. "In this regard, the membership of the Islamic Republic of Iran in regional and international organizations has also provided a suitable platform for promoting cooperation."

The ascendance of Iran to the SCO has helped to solidify a broader region-first approach. On the sidelines of the meeting, Raisi and Khan also met for the first time and announced plans to deeper their countries' partnership.

Karimi-Kia described the relationship between Iran and its neighbors, including Pakistan, as "fraternal." On Afghanistan, she said a framework for the country's future was being constructed in consultations involving Iran, Pakistan and other regional actors such as China, Russia and Central Asian countries.

The core of this effort, she argued, was to provide a plan "in order to provide humanitarian assistance, prevent a humanitarian and social crisis, and manage refugees and asylum seekers."

"Iran and Pakistan," she added," have also reached a principled understanding to help establish a comprehensive national government and lasting stability in Afghanistan."