August 14 marks Pakistan’s Independence Day when in 1947 the South Asian nation was freed from British colonial rule and came into existence. On this occasion, Iran Daily carried an exclusive interview with Pakistani Ambassador in Tehran, His Excellency Rahim Hayat Qureshi. The interview with the envoy, who presented his credentials on June 24, covered bilateral economic and political relations ranging from border crossings and border markets, Chabahar and Gwadar ports, and gas pipeline, to cross-border terrorism as well as the COVID-19 pandemic and people-to-people and cultural ties. The full text follows:
Iran Daily: Congratulations Mr. Ambassador on your appointment as well as the Pakistan Independence Day. How do you assess the current level of political and economic relations between Pakistan and Iran?
Qureshi: Iran is our close friend and a brotherly country. People of both countries share deep commonalities in culture, history, language and religion. Our centuries-old relations transcend the social, economic and political domains. Historically, the Persian Cosmopolitan had a strong influence in South Asia and Pakistan. Especially, the accentuation of the Persian language in the region could be attributed to the influx of Persian intelligentsia and traders. These age-old affinities have forged a deep fraternal bond between the two countries which continue to flourish to this day.
At the political level, we enjoy cordial relations, and this is not an insignificant fact that our two countries have never had any dispute in our bilateral relations. Iran was among the first countries to recognize Pakistan. Interestingly, many of the famous Iranian poets have penned poetry praising the freedom struggle of Pakistan. Most prominently, Malik-ul-Shuarah Bahar, who praised Pakistan in the following words:
همیشه لطف خدا باد یار پاکستان
به کین مباد فلک با دیار پاکستان
May God give grace to our brotherly country of Pakistan
May destiny never bring bad things to the country of Pakistan
Successive governments in Pakistan have always endeavored to expand and deepen relations with Iran. Of course, there have been brief periods of lull in diplomatic relations but the overall trajectory has remained positive and upward.
During 2019, Prime Minister Imran Khan made two visits to Iran, in April and October. This marked a new phase in our bilateral relations. The visits deepened mutual understanding on critical issues and led to a joint commitment to promote trade ties. Since then, there has been multi-faceted interaction between the two governments on several levels.
Besides this, both countries are also founding members of the Economic Cooperation Organization – the erstwhile Regional Cooperation Development that was formed in 1964 – with its headquarters in Tehran. This reminds me of the famous verse by Allama Iqbal, who wrote:
تہران ہو گرعالم مشرق کا جنیوا
کرہ آرز کی تقدیر بدل جائے شاید
If Tehran be the Geneva of the East
The fate of the planet may yet change
Firmly committed to the principles of international law, justice and egalitarianism in international relations, and also due to its deep-rooted friendship with Iran, Pakistan has always voiced its support for Iran in lifting US sanctions at every political and diplomatic forum. Given Pakistan’s brotherly relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, Pakistan has endeavored to work out reconciliation between Iran and Saudi Arabia – the two leading countries in the Islamic world, for de-escalation of tensions in the region, to strengthen Muslim brotherhood.
In the same context, Pakistan deeply admires the principled stance of the Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei on the issue of Jammu & Kashmir that is illegally occupied by India in blatant violation of the UN Security Council. Unfortunately, on 5th of August last year, the Indian military laid siege to Jammu & Kashmir and turned it into the Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IIOJ&K). Pakistan observed Youm-e-Istehsal this year to mark one year of military siege by Indian military forces.
To quote the famous Iranian poet, Bahar, on Kashmir:
چو مادری که ز فرزند شیرخواره جداست
نجات کشمیر آمد شعار پاکستان
Like a mother who is separated from her nursling
Saving Kashmir has become the slogan of Pakistan
Although Pakistan and Iran enjoy old, time-tested and friendly relations, unfortunately, the volume of our trade is low, and is much below the potential due to various factors. Nevertheless, it is encouraging to note that in recent years, the two governments have taken several steps to overcome these challenges and further improve cooperation in the arena of trade, investment, and connectivity. Innovative solutions are being developed to address our common issues.
What plans are underway by the two countries to increase the number of crossings and markets along the common border?
Both countries are actively working to open two border points: One is Pishin-Mand, and the other is Gabd-Rimdan. The Pishin-Mand border point has been opened while trade activities have gradually begun. Hopefully, the other border point will be opened soon.
Moreover, establishing border markets is also connected to this issue and we are also working on opening these markets on the new border points. One at Pishin-Mand (Pishin is on Iran’s side of the border and Mand is on Pakistan’s side), and another at Gabd-Rimdan (Gabd is on the Pakistani side and Rimdan is on the Iranian side). This Gabd-Rimdan BCP is closer to Chabahar and Gwadar.
What measures are adopted by Pakistan and Iran to boost the economy of people in the cities and villages along the common border and improve the quality of their lives?
The government of Pakistan is striving to develop and improve the infrastructure and provide the basic necessities of life in cities bordering Iran. However, these cities are very far from the capital of Baluchistan Province and the terrain is very difficult to reach. One of the key components of our trade and economic strategy is to work jointly at our respective sides to improve livelihood and local economic conditions.
The Economy and Development are inter-related. To guarantee welfare and prosperity, what steps are taken by the two countries in the field of upholding security, particularly along the common border?
We have a common border of more than 900 kilometers. It is only natural that elements inimical to the bilateral interests of both countries try to take advantage and create security challenges for both countries. To effectively address this issue, and to further improve security in the border regions, our political and military leadership as well as the intelligence authorities are in regular contact. In addition, Pakistan has started the fencing of the border. So far, over 235 kilometers of fencing have been completed and, by the end of this year, it is hoped that around 435 kilometers will be fenced. Once completed, this will further include coordinated patrolling of borders at our respective sides by our respective security forces. This would effectively improve the security of the region. So far, as compared to last year, security related incidents have been reduced from around 250 to less than 50.
Moreover, Pakistan has recently issued a political map clearing all misunderstandings regarding borders. The new political map manifests aspirations of the people of Pakistan and re-asserts our stated position on Jammu and Kashmir, which is as per the United Nations Security Council Resolutions. The map is available at http://www.surveyofpakistan.gov.pk/#
What are Pakistani government’s measures in curbing cross-border sectarian terrorists’ infiltration into areas neighboring Iran?
Pakistan has always declared that our border with Iran is a border of peace. The relationship between Pakistan and Iran has been historically friendly. The terrorist acts have been conducted against both Iran and Pakistan, however, both our countries are cognizant of this issue and efforts are being undertaken for its resolution.
On Pakistan’s part, as already explained above, the border fencing is being done. The government of Pakistan has clearly and categorically declared that it would not allow its soil to be used for terrorist purposes against any other country. We have almost completely fenced the Afghan border and the security situation has significantly improved. In addition to the fencing project, our military leadership and the border authorities are in regular coordination. Regular contacts and coordinated efforts have resulted in marked improvement in the security situation. However, this is not a reason to lower our guard. Both countries shall keep a strict watch on the spoilers to prevent terrorist activity against each other from their respective jurisdictions.
How do you see the prospects of cooperation between Pakistan’s Gwadar and Iran’s Chabahar? Is it possible for the two ports to contribute to each other’s development or complement one another’s operation through, for instance, Chabahar supplying electricity to Gwadar?
The Gwadar port will feed the China Pakistan Economic Corridor – the flagship project of BRI (Belt, Road Initiative). The CPEC is a phenomenal project that will not only benefit Pakistan and China but the entire region. Likewise, Chabahar is a strategic port and the fact that it has been granted exemption by the US from sanctions and its location outside the Persian Gulf further adds to its importance. Mutual connectivity of these ports and improved rail and road infrastructure will not only benefit Pakistan and Iran, but also enable us to provide economic roots to the Central Asian countries.
I understand there is a general debate about the two ports being in competition, whereas, actually, they are not; instead, they complement each other. Both ports will not only serve our countries, but also the region. This fact has been acknowledged at the highest levels of our political leadership.
In addition to bilateral cooperation on these projects, ECO is at work in extending benefits to its member states that include the entire land-locked Central Asian region. The transport corridors being developed by ECO will promote trade and investment in the entire region.
What are the obstacles and challenges to the further expansion of bilateral relations?
Iran is currently undergoing a difficult phase. The financial sanctions on Iran and the failure of JCPOA to promote trade are the main hurdles. Almost all our bilateral projects are affected by the financial sanctions in one way or another. Despite these difficulties, the trade volume last year stood at USD 1.6 billion, with around 1.1 billion in Iran’s exports to Pakistan, and around USD 500 million in Pakistan’s exports to Iran.
Nevertheless, strong political will exists; there is a huge potential of cooperation between the two countries. Currently, the relevant authorities of both countries are coordinating alongside the Chambers of Commerce to facilitate trade in non-sanctioned commodities. Moreover, as international relations involve numerous variables and the current situation is likely to turn more favorable, allowing both countries to efficiently follow up on the pending issues.
What are the two countries’ plans and measures to improve the cultural as well as people-to-people relations?
Pakistan and Iran are two brothers bonded in culture, religion and ethnicity. This closely integrated relationship will grow stronger with the passing of each day. Both countries are also closely working towards the greater integration of the ECO region, which will further boost cultural and economic ties as well as the whole region’s vision of peace and prosperity.
As I mentioned before, relations between the two countries are rooted in deep historical and cultural affiliations. The synthesis of the two cultures could be found in the Isphani poetry of Iran as well as in some of the famous architectural masterpieces in Pakistan. Not only this, but Iran has always rendered a special status to the founding fathers of the freedom movement of Pakistan. Notably, the Leader of the Islamic Revolution Seyyed Ali Khamenei has written a book entitled, “Iqbal: Manifestation of the Islamic Spirit” on the works of the Poet of the East. Iqbal always debated the unity of the Muslim Ummah and the enlightenment of the youth. In one of his poems, he referred to the Iranian youth, stating:
چون چراغ لاله سوزم در خیابان شما
ای جوانان عجم جان من و جان شما
I am burning like a tulip’s lamp on your path
O youth of Iran, I swear by my own life and yours
Unfortunately, social relations between Iranian and Pakistani people are below their potential; the people of the two countries do not know each other well. Therefore, alongside the extension of economic and political relations between the two countries, boosting tourism is also on our agenda in order to enhance the social and cultural connections among the people of Iran and Pakistan. Iranians are friendly people and love traveling abroad. Pakistan offers affordable and excellent tourist attractions.
Iran is also a popular destination for religious tourism. Around half a million Pakistanis come to Iran every year, particularly for visiting holy shrines. We want to improve attractions for Iranians so that they may mark Pakistan as their next tourist destination. Iranians love hiking, camping in nature, food, and music. In the region, they cannot find a better tourist destination, one that hosts seven out of the eight tallest mountains in the world. In addition, the rich cultural heritage, diversity, variety of music and delicious local foods would provide unforgettable experiences.
In addition, the Ministry of Religious Affairs in Pakistan is in the process of formulating a policy for Zaireen (pilgrims) to regulate Zaireen on the pattern of Hajj. It will greatly facilitate pilgrimage and promote tourism.
What is the level of cooperation between the two neighbors in the face of environmental problems and natural disasters?
The governments and peoples of both countries have supported each other during natural calamities and disasters. Pakistan dispatched humanitarian assistance for our Iranian brothers in the 2017 earthquake in Karmanshah and, later, for those who were affected by the devastating floods in 2019. Similarly, Iran came forward with all-out help during the earthquake in 2005 that affected large portions of northern Pakistan and during the floods in 2011. In recent days, the health ministries of both countries have been in collaboration to combat COVID-19 and to frame a combined health policy to regulate the Border Crossing Points (BCP).
Please elaborate on the latest developments in the construction of the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, particularly, given the intensification of US economic sanctions?
The US sanctions are the major hindrance in the completion of this project. The reason is that these financial sanctions deter companies from coming forward and investing in this project. However, our efforts in this direction are underway. For Pakistan, the provision of cheap energy is a great incentive and this pipeline can go a long way to allow us to meet our energy requirements and boost economic activity. The government of Iran is aware of our compulsions and has kindly acknowledged our constraints. As soon as the situation improves, it will be the first project to be resumed.