Iranian Chief of General Staff Major General Mohammad Bagheri’s visit to Pakistan marks a new beginning of relations between the two countries. The thaw between the two Islamic countries, which were close to a war after border skirmishes in 2014, promises to reshape dynamics in the region. According to experts, it can pave the way for the formation of a new strategic bloc which will play an important role in the world in the near future.
Experts say the first visit of an Iranian army chief to Pakistan in the past 40 years proves both countries have realized that they have no option but to work together despite obstacles and mistrust created by international forces between them. A hostile US attitude has also pushed them closer. Iran has been facing the US aggression for decades, but Pakistan has started feeling the impact of its “friendly” firing recently. Pakistan had to rethink its relations with the US after years of accusations of harbouring militants and threats of dire consequences. The visit of the Iranian general became possible after General Bajwa decided to improve relations with Iran. Pakistan and Iran pledged to deepen their military cooperation during his three-day trip. The development is being seen as a great achievement for the two countries because bilateral military exchanges have been very rare due to their mutual mistrust that kept them divided till recently. General Bagheri visited caretaker Foreign Minister Abdullah Hussain Haroon at the Foreign Ministry and then went to the General Headquarters (GHQ) for a meeting with Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa. Reciprocating General Bajwa’s offer, the Iranian commander “pledged to keep working for better relations between the two brotherly countries,” the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) said.
The thaw between the two countries came last year when General Bajwa had made an unprecedented visit to Iran and set the stage for improved cooperation. Later, Chief of the General Staff Lt. Gen. Bilal Akbar visited Iran in June. According to analysts, Pakistan started looking for options after US President Trump rebuked it for allegedly supporting non-state actors in the Afghan conflict. As the US openly supports armed militias in Syria, Iran came to Pakistan’s support. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi vehemently condemned the US over the attack, at a time when all allies of Pakistan in the Arab world remained silent. Subsequently, the then Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif also travelled to Tehran and held meetings with Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani. Despite friendly ties with India, Iran has always backed Pakistan on the Kashmir dispute. During his national Eid address on June 26, 2017, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei called upon the Muslim world to support the Kashmiris and not condone atrocities committed by oppressors attacking them. Then again on July 3, 2017, during a meeting with Iran’s chief justice, the ayatollah called on the Iranian judiciary to express solidarity with the Kashmir cause, advising it to develop supportive legal positions for the Kashmiris. Iran’s foreign ministry has also voiced concern over the recent killings of Kashmiri civilians by the Indian armed forces in Kashmir.
Weeks before the arrival of the top Iranian general, Pakistan had hosted an unprecedented meeting of heads of intelligence agencies from Russia, China and Iran to discuss counterterrorism cooperation, with particular focus on the buildup of Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan. The participants held detailed discussions on joint measures to stop Afghan-based loyalists of the Middle Eastern terrorist group from threatening the territorial boundaries of the four nations. The unusual huddle brought together spymasters from the countries which are “directly affected” by IS-led terrorism. However, the meeting explained it was “not targeted against any other country as it may be viewed,” in a bid to allay suggestions that cooperation among Russia, China and Iran could undermine US-led efforts to stabilise Afghanistan. A spokesperson for Moscow’s Foreign Intelligence Service said, “The conference reached an understanding of the importance of coordinated steps to prevent the trickling of IS terrorists from Syria and Iraq to Afghanistan, where from they would pose risks to neighbouring countries.” Sergei Ivanov told state-run TASS that the director of the Russian spy agency, Sergei Naryshkin, had attended the Islamabad meeting along with Chinese and Iranian counterparts. They “stressed the need for a more active inclusion of regional powers in the efforts to end the war in Afghanistan.”
The conference followed months of Russian allegations that the US is behind growing IS influence, particularly in northern Afghan provinces next to the border with Central Asian countries. The US dismissed the charges as rumours, and an attempt to justify Moscow’s links to the Taliban insurgency. Iran, which shares a long border with Afghanistan, has similar concerns in the wake of growing terrorist activities in the region. Pakistani officials maintain the terrorist group has established strong bases in “ungoverned spaces” in Afghanistan and plans cross-border terrorist attacks. They cite US military assessments that the Afghan government controls less than 60 percent of the territory.
According to analysts, new geo-strategic alliances are in the offing in South Asia. The US has long wished to contain China through India and its strategic partnership with India is proof of it. China plans to pay the US back in the same coin by patronizing Pakistan against India. Pakistan will avail all its options including forming a strategic alliance with China to counter the Indian influence in Afghanistan. The US has paved the way for a greater Indian role in Afghanistan to maintain strategic balance but it does not suit Pakistan. China’s role is more focused on its own interests. It has been actively engaged in Afghanistan because it is worries about a possible spillover of militants into its Xinxiang province and some other areas, in case of a permanently destabilized Afghanistan. In the situation, Pakistan has joined hands with Iran, China and Russia to play a bigger role in the region.