By: S.S.A Mehdi
$400 billion. 25 years. This is the amount that China has pledged to invest in Iran in the recently drafted economic and security package being coordinated between the two nations. While rightly being highlighted as a new chapter in Sino-Iran relations, an aspect of this deal that may have the biggest impact is in re-shaping the overall geopolitical dynamics of South Asia. There were two main countries acting as a barrier to growing Chinese influence in South Asia, namely India and the United States. With the Sino-Iran deal, the external pressures exerted by the India and the US on regional nations are far more difficult to sustain. Firstly, the Iran-Pakistan relationship has an opportunity to revitalize itself in the aftermath of the Chinese investment in Iran. Secondly, with a potential decreased focus on Pakistan’s western borders with Iran, the Pakistani military would be able to employ more of their efforts on their western border with India. As a result, the gap in the balance of power between the two nations would be narrowed resulting in a more stable security environment, according to realist IR theorists. Next, the role of the US would be greatly decreased in the region if their threats of sanctions against Iranian assets and entities that deal with them have less bite due to China offering alternative partnerships. With this, regional countries can pursue a more independent and nation-centric approach to dealing with Iran without fear of any economic backlash by the West. Finally, India has a chance to reconfigure their entire regional geopolitical structure since it would be able to pursue their own relations with Iran in partnership with other Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) countries such as Pakistan and China. Rather than ports like Chabahar being used mere geopolitical weapons, it can now be run in conjunction with the nearby port of Gwadar in Pakistan to improve the quality of life for residents of both cities and extend the reach of CPEC under the BRI.
Iran and Pakistan have long had significant cultural, historical and religious ties. During the days of the Shah, the two countries were considered staunch allies and along with Turkey formed a major part of the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), a military alliance formed as part of the Western led Cold War against the Soviets. However, relations cooled after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and both Iran and Pakistan left the alliance within days of one another. The downturn in the bilateral relations was partly due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in which Iran and Pakistan found themselves on opposing sides of the conflict. It was further fueled by the rise of the military regime of Zia ul Haq in Pakistan at the time which promoted closer ties with the Gulf bloc due to the former’s mistrust of the regime in Tehran. Even so, the on-ground dynamics of the Afghan conflict have changed considerably since then. While Pakistan retains some links with the Afghan Taliban, Iran too has opened diplomatic channels with the militant group in an effort to have a say in a post-war Afghanistan akin to Pakistan. Similarly, Russia has also reached out to the Taliban through backchannel diplomacy to undercut American influence in Afghanistan. Due to these shifting alliances, Pakistan and Iran do not find themselves differing in the Afghan theatre as much as they did in the decades prior. Moreover, Pakistan too has initiated a policy of diversifying its links in the Afghan political space as opposed to its historical stance of mainly having links to the Pashtun ethnic groups of the country. In early July 2020, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, invited Afghan leader Abdullah Abdullah, long seen as representative of the non-Pashtun groups in Afghanistan, to visit Pakistan in an official capacity. Pakistan’s diplomatic outreach to all segments of the Afghan political sphere and their insistence on the Taliban to enter peace talks with the government are indicative of a change in how Islamabad views the Afghan conflict.
While the Afghan geopolitical environment is changing, the border issues between Iran and Pakistan risk dampening the overall mood of closer cooperation. The militant group Jaish Al Adl, which allegedly has save havens in Pakistani Balochistan, is responsible for several deadly attacks against Iranian forces in recent years. After one such attack in February 2019 in which 27 Iranian soldiers were killed, both moderates and war-hawks within the Iranian government called out Pakistan for not doing enough to ensure a safe border. Similarly, Pakistani officials chide Iran for allowing anti-Pakistan Baloch rebels and Indian spies such as Kulbushan Yadav to take refuge within their borders. In this context, China can act as a significant mediator by bridging the trust deficit between Iran and Pakistan. Since the Western route of CPEC and the coveted port of Gwadar run through Balochistan, China will insist on a violence-free and stable province and the recent deal with Iran would allow it to exert more diplomatic pressure on both Pakistan and Iran to ensure that either side of the border is not used as a battleground for a proxy war. With a combined investment of close to $500 billion, the Chinese would have a good reason to ensure that the area remains free from external influence and devoid of any safe havens for militant groups. While Iran and Pakistan were a part of CENTO due to the wishes of the Western bloc, a potential alliance under the overall China-Pakistani-Economic-Corridor and the BRI would provide a much more independent and relevant framework for a regional partnership to blossom.
Along these same lines, another reason as to how Iran’s foray into the Chinese sphere of influence may result in a more stable South Asia is due to the decreased reliance on India by Iran resulting in a more stable Iran-Pakistan border. While India was the top buyer of Iranian oil in 2018-2019, the threat of American sanctions resulted in Iranian oil imports being brought down to zero, much to the dismay of Iranian officials. Due to this India has lost a significant bargaining chip that it held in its dealings with Tehran and hence due to the diminished economic hold on Iran, the latter would be less pushed to serve Indian interests by allowing safe havens for anti-Pakistan terrorist proxies such as the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) or allowing individuals such as Kulbushan Yadav to indulge in anti-Pakistan activities from Iran. As a result, Pakistan will be able to focus more of their troops on their Eastern border with India thus narrowing the gap in the balance of power between the two nations. Granted that this point of view would mostly find support in the realist realm of International Relations, it cannot be denied that most of Pakistan’s external security threats are perceived to be from India. From the Pakistani perspective, if it strengthens its eastern border, chances for cross-border Indian action would be diminished due to the shortening of the escalation ladder. If Indian military advisors were previously confident in their ability to thwart a Pakistani counterattack, the increased Pakistani military presence on the LOC may cause them to delay or shelve more belligerent plans for fear of an all-out war breaking out.
One attribute of the old South Asian order was the tendency for the US to pit neighboring countries against one another. Asides from severely harming the Indo-Iran relationship due to threats of American sanctions, the American strategy of using India as a regional bulwark against growing Chinese influence also resulted in a South Asia constantly at odds with one another. Reduced American influence could help countries carve out their own paths without taking dictation from the US and the recent removal of India from the Chabahar-Zaheden Railway project should indicate to New Delhi that towing the Western line in South Asia will result in it being sidelined. The shifting geopolitical landscape provides the Modi regime with an opportunity to work alongside China’s BRI since the alternative is a united South Asia sans India. If policymakers in New Delhi decide to embrace rather than counter China, a new trade-based continental relationship may be able to take shape since the hegemonic power struggle would be replaced by one that is reliant on cooperation rather than a zero-sum power struggle. With Pakistan and Iran sorting out their border issues and India dismantling their policies of using Iran against Pakistan, the three countries may be able to finish the long-delayed Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) or Peace Pipeline, thus symbolizing a new age of Central and South Asian cooperation through the larger framework of the BRI. The so-called rivalry between the ports of Chabahar and Gwadar can also be turned into a transformational partnership with the potential to connect the MENA, Central Asia and South Asia. The following South Asian countries are officially under the ambit of the Belt and Road Initiative:
|Afghanistan||South Asia||Low income|
|Bangladesh||South Asia||Lower middle income|
|Maldives||South Asia||Upper middle income|
|Nepal||South Asia||Low income|
|Pakistan||South Asia||Lower middle income|
|Sri Lanka||South Asia|
With the majority of South Asian countries finding themselves under the same umbrella of Chinese influence, external forces opposed to a stronger China would find it harder to make diplomatic inroads in an already established regional bloc. By linking the economic futures of neighboring countries with one another, China has attempted to take regional war out of the equation. Taking this into account, the embrace of China by Iran not only offers the start of a brand new bilateral relationship, it allows South Asia to rid itself of external forces that have historically had self-interests in mind in place of those that insist on a continent symbolized by trade rather than tensions.