ISLAMABAD, 23 December 2002 — Iran President Mohammed Khatami arrives in Pakistan today a decade after his predecessor Rafsanjani paid a visit in 1992. In 1995 Pakistan’s Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto made a two-day official trip to Iran.
The nineties was marked by major upheavals in Pakistan-Iran relations. Divergent and often competitive policies over Afghanistan led to a virtual cold war between the two historically close neighbors. If in the sixties and seventies, during Pakistan’s years of war and tragic break-up of the country, Iran gave unqualified support to Pakistan, in the eighties a military-run Pakistan provided exemplary political and diplomatic cover to a virtually ostracized Iran. But the nineties was marked by distrust, bordering almost on antagonism.
While the two “crossed swords” diplomatically over Afghanistan, other issues contributing to deteriorating ties ranged from killing of an Iranian diplomat and naval cadets in Pakistan to Islamabad’s conclusion about Iran’s deliberate efforts to keep Pak-Iran trade at very low levels.
The nineties indeed was the “rock-bottom” period in Pakistan-Iran relations. The Iranians questioned the nature and thrust of closer Pakistan-US relations; likewise Pakistan watched deepening India-Iran ties with suspicion.
Now as the Iranian president arrives the context of this bilateral relationship has changed. Afghanistan is no longer an issue. Pakistan’s courts have tackled the suspects in the high-profile Iranian killings. While the post-9/11 period has witnessed cooperation of the Muslim states, Pakistan and Iran included, with United States in its anti-terrorism drive, there are common issues that concern the entire Muslim world. The growing misunderstanding at the people-to-people level between the Muslim and the non-Muslim world — often reflected in policy decisions, especially of the United States — is a challenge that requires a common response. Similarly other issues facing our region and the Muslim world generally include the planned US war on Iraq as a possessor of weapons of mass destruction while neglecting Israel’s nuclear arsenal, a systematic media campaign against Pakistan’s nuclear program as well as Iran’s defense-related nuclear plans and a consistent undermining of the Palestinian case by the United States.
In this very difficult times for the Muslim world, a reactive response will prove deadly. What is called for is a proactive and wise response — one that factors in the Muslim peoples’ dreams, dignity and their determination for a better future. While Khatami has spoken of a much-needed inter-civilizational dialogue, Islamabad can take the lead, while he is in Pakistan, in announcing the idea of an Annual Statesmen-Scholars Forum which will force the Muslim statesmen and scholars to jointly reflect on the complex practical challenges faced by the Muslims at home and abroad.
On the bilateral front, Pakistan and Iran need to remove hurdles that are keeping bilateral trade at extremely low levels. Iran’s exports, mainly oil, amount to around $300 million while Pakistan’s exports amount to around $30 million. The issues raised personally by Gen. Pervez Musharraf during his meeting with the Iranian president still remain unresolved. Rice and wheat exports from Pakistan still remain stalled.
Similarly communication links, especially between Quetta-Taftan-Zahidan-Mashad-Kushka, need to be made operational. Unless concrete steps are taken to deal with these issues, a genuine process of trust-building between the two countries will not have begun.