Traditionally, the relationship between Iran and Pakistan has been formal and friendly, though with differences on major strategic issues. The appointment of the new Pakistani Prime Minister Imram Khan, former cricket player and social conservative, led many to believe that Pakistan will form a closer relationship with Iran. This notion became even stronger when Iranian President Hassan Rowhani telephoned Khan to congratulate him on his election, while Khan accepted the invitation to visit Iran at some point. Wider regional developments are forcing the two sides to reinforce their ties, although they are far from any high-profile partnership.
The relationship between these two neighboring countries has always been apparently peaceful and cordial, especially given the two countries’ shared history, social ties, and geographic proximity. This relationship was not significantly impaired by the sectarian divide between the Shia Iran and the majority Sunni Pakistan. Namely, Shia Muslims have often had a prominent role in Pakistani politics and society, while Iran pragmatically remained silent in instances of suppression of the Shia community in Pakistan, not wanting to endanger relations with its neighbor.
However, neither one of the two countries has wanted to acknowledge the leadership role of the other for several decades, resulting in intermittent shifts in power. Pakistan seemed to envy Iran’s central geographical position in Eurasia, its economic potential, talented manpower, and ancient civilization legacy. Iranian, on the other hand, envied Pakistan for being at the crossroads of the South and Central Asia, as well as the Middle East, with approximately 200 million people, nuclear weapons, and a large army. What made the relationship particularly awkward were the different stances that the two have on regional issues. Since the early 1970s, Iran has remained neutral in Pakistan’s conflict with India, while Pakistan has been similarly uninvolved in the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which has been ongoing ever since the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1978.
However, the issue that has burdened the relationship between the two countries the most has been Afghanistan. After the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan (1979-1989), the Pakistani military intelligence (ISI) facilitated the formation of the Taliban political movement around the community of Afghan Pashtuns, which assumed power in Kabul in 1996. For Pakistan, the Taliban domination of Afghanistan was necessary, as the country needed a strategic rear in its rivalry with India, as well as to avoid the possibility of Afghanistan allying with India, which would endanger it on two fronts. However, the Taliban was anti-Shia and anti-Iran, while Iran, alongside Russia and India, became one of the supporters of the Northern Alliance, an alliance of other Afghan nations and tribes that were anti-Taliban. In 1998, the Taliban organized a strike that killed nine Iranian diplomats in Mazar-i-Sharif, resulting in military mobilization in Iran that almost culminated in a war with the Talban regime. Paradoxically, this happened on the same year that Pakistan became a nuclear power.
The recent positive rhetoric between Pakistan and Iran has been driven by several trends, primarily the changes in Afghanistan. While Iran assisted the United States in overthrowing the Taliban regime in Kabul after the September 11 attacks, the tensions with Washington propelled Iran to view the U.S. presence in Afghanistan as potentially threatening in terms of an offensive from the East. While Pakistan continued supporting the Taliban, even after its overthrow, the Taliban gave up on its anti-Shia stance and focused its attention on the insurgency against the United States and other foreign troops in Afghanistan. What really removed Afghanistan as an obstacle in the relationship between Iran and Pakistan is the arrival of the Islamic State into Afghanistan. Namely, the Islamic State established its own franchise in Afghanistan, the Islamic State of Khorasan. This new threat forced Iran to establish a partnership with the Taliban, also leading to its alliance with Pakistan, China, and Russia against the Islamic State of Khorasan. In addition, Pakistan supports Iran’s efforts to become a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional security organization led by Russia and China, which is fully dedicated to the issue of Afghanistan. In short, these new strange bedfellows are the result of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.
The two countries also feel increasingly alienated and under pressure from the United States, which is forcing them to diversify their partnerships. The Trump Administration has denied substantial military aid to Pakistan, as it no longer views the country as a reliable counter-terrorism partner, while Iran feels threatened by Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, as well as the continued sanctions and diplomatic pressures on the part of the United States. This additionally contributes to the Pakistani-Iranian sense of solidarity, as Pakistan enthusiastically supports the nuclear deal with Iran, given that the former is a nuclear state bordering two other nuclear states, India and China, and thus does not want a third nuclear neighbor. The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has similarly created an incentive for Pakistan and Iran to be even more forthcoming with each other, as both play prominent roles in China’s drive to create a network of connectivity across Eurasia. For Pakistan, Iran is also relevant as a potentially reliable energy supplier for its dire energy needs.
It is safe to conclude that the two countries will continue maintaining friendly relations. Pakistan cannot afford to alienate Iran, as this would push it to strengthen ties with India, a terrifying prospect for Pakistan. Similarly, Iran cannot afford to provoke Pakistan, as it is already embroiled in a regional cold war with the Sunni bloc, led by Saudi Arabia, on its western borders, and thus needs to keep its eastern border with Pakistan peaceful. So far, Pakistan has chosen to remain neutral in the violent Sunni-Shia divide in the Middle East. However, the relationship remains limited. The trade between the two is not ample, and Pakistan will not compromise its relationship with Saudi Arabia by becoming too close to Iran, or risk angering Washington, whose president is set on an anti-Iranian policy.