Pakistan’s Place in Iran’s Strategic Thinking: A Talk by Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister

‘The concept of the nation state is in turmoil’ … ‘Iran and Pakistan can reshape the region’ – Watch Video

The invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the events that unfolded in its aftermath transformed Iran from a “rogue” state once part of the so-called “Axis of Evil” to one which is now vastly influential in the volatile affairs of the region. The ongoing conflicts in Syria and Iraq and last summer’s JCPOA have meant that the once menacing image of frowning mullahs burning American, British and Israeli flags has now been replaced by Mohammad Javad Zarif’s famous “smile diplomacy”. The upshot is that the Iranians are no longer considered to be the pariahs of the international community that they once used to be. These days everyone is looking for economic opportunities in Iran and western businesses and banks are keen to interact with its vast markets which were disconnected from the mainstream world economy because of sanctions subsequent to the 1979 Revolution.

During his talk entitled Pakistan’s Place in Iran’s Strategic Thinking at The Pakistan Institute of International Affairs (PIIA) on 12 August 2016, Iran’s deputy foreign minister Dr Seyed Mohammad Kazem Sajjadpour said that Iran has more than a dozen neighbours but he remained unequivocal in his stance that Pakistan was a special country in the eyes of the Iranians. Dr Sajjadpour argued that Pakistan and Iran’s destinies are inextricably linked and that the two large neighbouring countries need to work together to combat security problems in order to neutralise the threat posed by terrorism. Detailed media coverage of our event with the Iranian dignitary can found below (see our earlier posts on Iran here and here and see further coverage here.

‘Iran and Pakistan can reshape region’ published in Dawn, 12 August 2016

Iran and Pakistan have no option but to work together despite the obstacles created by “third parties”, and this cooperation can help stabilise the region, said Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Dr Seyed Mohammad Kazem Sajjadpour here on Thursday.

The senior official, who has held several posts within the Iranian diplomatic machinery and heads the Centre for International Research and Education, was delivering a lecture on ‘Pakistan’s Place in Iran’s Strategic Thinking’ at the PIIA.

“We [Pakistan and Iran] have no option other than to work together for our security, survival and preservation of our heritage. We need each other to secure and insulate our nations from” the state of flux that was rocking the global environment, he said. “Iran and Pakistan can reshape this region in a much better way. Our strategic interest is to” cooperate and expand cooperation, he added.

Dr Sajjadpour gave a detailed analysis of what he felt were the key issues affecting the global environment before moving into the Pakistan-Iran bilateral relationship. He said the global situation could be described through the help of three ‘Ts’.

The first ‘T’, he said, was turmoil. “There is turmoil in all levels; turmoil in institutions. Look at what happened to the European Union with the exit of Britain. This has caused shocks and a ripple effect. There is turmoil in mentalities; today politicians have one position, tomorrow they have another”, he said, adding that Republican White House hopeful Donald Trump was a prime example of this behaviour.

“It’s not just a personal issue, it’s suggestive of a phenomenon,” Dr Sajjadpour observed with reference to Mr Trump’s antics. “The concept of the nation state is in turmoil”, especially in the Arab states, said the Iranian diplomat. “There is turmoil in our surroundings, a perpetual ingredient in daily life.”

Shifting power

The second ‘T’, he said, was transition, with many ambiguities. “Transitions are excruciating processes. There is transition in the global system in many dimensions. There is transition in the concept of power. Is the US powerful? Yes. Can it exert its power? No, military power is not enough. Power-holders are becoming multiple. Now non-state actors are sometimes more powerful than states; ISIS [the militant Islamic State group] is one of them. Individuals have become powerful. Look at what [Edward] Snowden did. He challenged a great power, which he is a citizen of. The power locale is also changing,” he observed, adding that power was shifting from the West, primarily the US and Europe, to Asia, particularly China.

The third ‘T’, according to Dr Sajjadpour, affecting the world order, was trends of conflicting nature. “Globalisation is everywhere. But also, there is narrow-minded localisation, much lower than tribal mentality. There is purely personal and factional interest along with global interest. There is closeness of the world today, but it is also [growing] apart.”

In such a global and regional environment, Dr Sajjadpour said, Iran and Pakistan had no option but to work together. “We and Pakistan are neighbours. Do we have any other option than to be carefully watching our interests and minimising the impacts of these global trends [working] against our interests? We have no other option.”

‘Special neighbours’

Highlighting the importance of Tehran’s special relationship with Islamabad, the Iranian deputy FM said:

Our bonds should be appreciated. We are special neighbours. We are good neighbours with Armenia; [but this] can’t be compared with Pakistan. We have 15 neighbours, [but] our bonds with Pakistan are unique — regional, civilisational, linguistic, political, economic, strategic bonds, the list goes on. Our bonds need to be taken more seriously; they should be nurtured at this time of transition.

Without naming regional and extra-regional actors, Dr Sajjadpour said:

These bonds are independent of third parties. There are many third parties who want to destroy these bonds. More cooperation is needed to make these bonds stronger.

In Iran, he observed, there was a consensus on cooperating with Pakistan. “I have never [heard] one single dissenting voice on cooperation with Pakistan. I think here also there is consensus. We have to take this friendship more seriously.”

Answering questions from the audience, Dr Sajjadpour denied Iran was pursuing a sectarian foreign policy. “Others pursue a sectarian policy. The sectarian narrative has nothing to do with the policy of Iran. We are for Muslim unity.” He said there was a desire in some quarters to “weaken Muslim societies economically, socially and politically. We should be careful.”

Later, addressing journalists and former and present diplomats Dr Sajjadpour said he noticed a few assumptions held by his Pakistani counterparts. “These assumptions are based on a misconstrued belief that Iran is a sectarian player. That it wants marginalisation of Pakistani society based on sect. Pakistanis are only used as proxies by Iran. And, the Iranians don’t take Pakistanis as seriously as they did before and after the revolution of 1979,” he explained.

These assumptions, he said, were created for political and strategic purposes. “It’d be in both our countries interest if former assumptions are deconstructed and corrected. And in its place, we focus on the fact that both Iran and Pakistan share a solid relationship,” he added.

However, he made it clear at the outset of the event that his views were not an official Iranian version of circumstances both Iran and Pakistan find themselves in rather based on his thinking. Keeping in mind the “realities of the region”, as Dr Sajjadpour put it, he said there were challenges facing both the countries. And that the Iran-Pak relations are “far better than they were around three years back.” In order to face those challenges, he added, the two brotherly countries needed to focus on a few building blocks. “Keeping our geography in mind, we can build a spectacular structure based on economic, cultural and individual exchanges between the two states and their people,” he said.

The deputy FM added that one of the biggest causes of increasing turmoil was the fear factor. “Fear of the other. And both our countries need to initiate a concept of meeting each other and talking out the differences rather than relying on assumptions.”

Deputy FM for improving Pak-Iran friendship, published in Business Recorder, 12 August 2016

Dubbing the present time as an era full of turmoils and ambiguous conceptual transitions, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Dr Mohammad Kazem Sajjadpour urged the need for Islamabad and Tehran to nurture the strong religious and civilisational bonds the two countries have for the benefit of their peoples.

“In such a difficult time we have no other option but to work together for our survival, for our well being, security and the protection of our heritage,” the Iranian official told an audience here at Pakistan Institute of International Affairs on Thursday.

Flanked by Iranian Consul General in Karachi Mehdi Sobhani and other delegates, Dr Sajjadpour analysed Pak-Iran bilateral ties in the backdrop of prevailing conflicting trends and transitions in international relations which, the doctor of philosophy said, were marked by turmoils on all “shocking” levels.

These turmoils, he said, were haunting the very concept of nation states on institutional and mental levels. Britain’s June 23 vote to leave European Union, he said, was reflective of institutional turmoil while rapidly changing politico-economic statements of US Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump illustrated mental turmoil among the world’s politicians.

“It (Trump) is not just a personal issue but suggestive of a phenomenon,” viewed Dr Sajjadpour, a former ambassador to Geneva. The Iranian official said while the world was passing through an ambiguous transition on conceptual nature the term power itself had changed.

With the center of power shifting from the west (Europe and America) to Asia (China), the US, despite being the world’s biggest military power was not able to achieve it policy goals through exerting the same in many cases. “Even we see some non-state actors like the ISIS (Daesh) wielding more power (than the states of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan),” said the president of Iran Political Science Association.

Conflicting trends, he said, were at work globally with the champions of globalisation being challenged by the proponents of narrow-minded theories of localisation. In this state of turmoil and transformation, Dr Sajjadpour said Pakistan and Iran should “nurture” their friendship to thwart the ulterior designs of “third party” elements. “We should watch our interests carefully to minimise the global impact of some harmful trends,” said the Iranian diplomat who said back in his country there was a complete consensus on co-operating with Pakistan.

“I have not seen one dissenting voice (back in home) on (Iran’s) cooperation with Pakistan,” he said and rejected “all the notions” that Tehran was sectarian in its policy approach. “Iran is always for the unity of Muslims,” he declared. “We have to take this friendship more seriously,” said Dr Sajjadpour who sees the two countries enjoying strong religious, civilizational, linguistic, political, strategic and economic bonds that need to be nurtured.

To a question, the soft-speaking diplomat said while Iran had done its job on Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project Pakistan was arranging Chinese financing to undertake the mega venture on its side of the border. “This project, I must say, should materialise,” he said.

Otherwise, he also informed the audience that when there were natural disasters-floods in Pakistan in 2009 which caused hundreds of people death, the Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei was giving a sermon. He was so sorry for what happen with the Pakistan’s people that he cried during his sermon in front of the audience. The deputy FM said:

Iran is a very open and debating society. I have never [heard] one single dissenting voice on cooperation with Pakistan. There is a consensus on cooperating with Pakistan. I think there is a similar consensus in Pakistan as well. We have to take this friendship more seriously.

He said the sectarian narrative has nothing to do with the policy of Iran and according to him “we are for Muslim unity.” He said there was a desire in some quarters to “weaken Muslim societies economically, socially and politically. We should be careful.” The top diplomat urged to make the Regional Cooperation for Development (RCD) more active to strengthen the cooperation among Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey.

PIIA Comment

The invasion of Iraq in 2003 disempowered the Sunnis of the region. Pro-Iranian forces filled the subsequent vacuum of power. The spillover from the invasion also ignited the Syrian civil war, which may have led to as many as 470,000 deaths by some estimates. A similar death toll has also been reported for Iraq. One thing is for sure. Like much of the Middle East, Iraq has been transformed from an orderly dictatorship into a mixture of unruly militia territories interspersed with ISIS controlled zones. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a moment of huge disempowerment for secular Sunni Arabs. As the Chilcot Report has confirmed, military action was premature if not entirely misconceived and unjustified. Diplomatic options, which remained underutilised, were a far superior way of dealing with Saddam Hussein.

Interestingly, Turki al-Faisal, the former Saudi ambassador to the UK and US who was also the kingdom’s intelligence chief, recently addressed a meeting of the Islamist-Marxist group Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MeK) (for which Turki al-Faisal had expressed past support despite the group’s obscure status in Iran, where it is a proscribed terrorist organisation).

MeK’s patronage by a former Saudi official led to Mohammad Javad Zarif accusing Riyadh of mingling with terrorists. In a stinging rebuke, the Iranian foreign minister called prince Turki “the creator of al Qaida and the Taliban” and concluded that like Saddam the Saudis “are tying their fate to that of terrorists.” Equally, IRGC’s Brigadier General Ramezan Sharif said on behalf of Iranian security forces that the meeting exposes Riyadh’s “old ties” with “terrorists”. Relations reached a new low point earlier this year in January when Riyadh severed diplomatic ties with Tehran because of the ransacking of the Saudi embassy after the Saudis executed Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr on terrorism charges. Notably, the US Congress has also recently released a 9/11 document potentially showing Saudi links to al Qaida.

Tehran regards Bashar al-Assad as “the glue that holds much of Syria together” and that may no longer be unpalatable for the world (because ISIS is the real problem) and as Dr Radwan Loutfi said in his talk on the future of Syria, the dictator is not a small tree which can be uprooted and thrown out to please the western world. Iran’s involvement in Syria and Iraq is murky indeed yet in his August 2015 visit to Iran former foreign secretary Philip Hammond (now chancellor) eschewed the popular western caricature of Iran as a theocratic and backward place and said:

But what I’ve seen is a perfectly normal, bustling dynamic, entrepreneurial, thrusting, middle-income developing country that clearly has enormous potential, not a regimented, disciplined society under the thumb of the authority.

In the existing status quo, Iran’s murky involvement in Syria’s battlefields and its support of extremist groups such as Hezbollah in the Lebanon may soon become an asset for the west which is too afraid – or paralysed – to put boots on the ground to stop the Salafi jihadists. Of course, the idea of military alliances between Iran and the western world are a source of overwhelming concern for people like Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netahyahu whose entire political career has been constructed on the fear of the “terrorist” Persian bogeyman. Overall, it is hard to see how Netanyahu or Israel can call the Iranians terrorists after all the Palestinian blood staining their hands.

Posted by Editor.

Coverage and commentary on recent PIIA events is available below:

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Filed under CPEC, Cyber Security, Discussion, Europe, Iran, ISIS, Islam, Pakistan, Pakistan Horizon, Palestine, PIIA, Politics, Sanctions, Syria, The Middle East

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