Pakistan has invariably been outsmarted by Iran insofar as some real or perceived tensions emanating from the development of two ports - Gwadar and Chabahar - are concerned. Consider: Iranian Foreign Minister Dr Javad Zarif has invited Pakistan to participate in Chabahar seaport project and development of its link with Gwadar Port as he sought to allay Pakistan's legitimate concerns over Indian involvement in the Iranian port. "We offered to participate in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). We have also offered Pakistan and China to participate in Chabahar," Dr Zarif reportedly said while delivering a lecture at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI) that had been held to commemorate the 70th anniversary of establishment of Pak-Iran diplomatic relations the other day. Dr Zarif is spot-on in relation to the criticality of the two ports for development of deprived Eastern and Southeastern Iran and Southwestern Pakistan and his suggestion that both needed to be linked through sea and land routes for giving effect to their complementarities also deserves praise. He has claimed that Tehran's relations with New Delhi are not against Islamabad. However, his emphasis that "[W]e are taking measures to do that and there is an open invitation to Pakistan to participate in that" clearly indicates that the Iranian leadership is ill at ease after providing space to Pakistan's arch enemy in the neighbourhood of Gwadar port. No doubt, there's the rub. How could Dr Zarif be so sure when the Islamic republic has leased out the entire operational control of a port located in close proximity of the flagship project of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to Pakistan's traditional rival India? The town that hosts Iran's only oceanic port was the place from where RAW's convicted agent Commander Kulbhushan Jadhav carried out his activities before he finally entered, of course illegally, Pakistan's Balochistan. His argument that Chabahar port project was not meant to "encircle Pakistan ... strangulate anybody" and that Iran would not allow anybody to hurt Pakistan from its territory much like Pakistan would not allow its soil to be used against Iran lacks plausibility when Dr Zarif likens Iran's relations with India to Pakistan's ties with Saudi Arabia. "Our relations with India, just like Pakistan's relations with Saudi Arabia, are not against Pakistan as we understand Pakistan's relations with Saudi Arabia are not against Iran," according to him. Is it a fair comparison? Were Saudi Arabia-Iran relations marred by protracted hostilities, growing distrust and deep suspicions prior to the removal of the Shah of Iran? Have Iran and Saudi Arabia ever gone to war with each other? Has Saudi Arabia been orchestrating terrorist activities inside Iran as what India has been doing in Pakistan? Hasn't Pakistan strongly annoyed Saudi Arabia by refusing to commit troops to the Yemen conflict in which the kingdom and Iran are pitted against each other? There could be so many other questions to challenge the assertion of the honourable foreign dignitary. Inviting China, world's second largest economy and the largest trading partner of Iran, to the Chabahar project however strictly constitutes an Iran-China bilateral matter, restraining this newspaper from making any comment.
Be that as it may, Dr Zarif must be praised for his vision for better ties between Pakistan and Iran that envisages realisation of long delayed Iran-Pakistan (IP) gas pipeline, establishment of banking ties, signing a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and making Gwadar and Chabahar ports complementary. It is true that banking relations are considered crucial to expanding bilateral trade that is currently at $1.2 billion. The target is to increase it to $5 billion per annum over next few years. The absence of regular banking channels, however, adds to the profundity of challenge. Iran's banking authorities are therefore requested to take a sympathetic view of Pakistani banks' approach to this bilateral objective as Iran continues to face a slew of economic sanctions by the US. The situation therefore requires Pakistani banks to act cautiously and prudently in view of growing global financial oversights and regulations. Notwithstanding successive Pakistani governments' complacent approach to the IP project, these reasons do represent a formidable obstacle to the completion of this mega energy project as well. The PML-N government must respond to Iran's move in the most generous manner possible in view of the fact that not only are the two Islamic countries friends, they are also neighbours.