Four days before sanctions came into effect, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif dashed to Ankara and Islamabad, accompanied by what the official news agency described as a “politico-military delegation.”
While many issues were on the agenda, helping soften the impact of sanctions is a priority for Iranian government. The economy is showing signs of collapse and the public is angry at the ruling clerics as never before. In this context, it is natural for Khamenei and other senior clerics to have expectations from its two neighbors.
Since coming to power in 1979, the clerical ayatollahs have had a history of using the two neighbors to dodge sanctions, both legally, with the consent of Turkish and Pakistani governments, but more often illegally, without official sanction.
During the Iran-Iraq war, Pakistan broke away from its Western and Middle Eastern allies to give a breather to Iran through the seaport and business hub of Karachi on the Arabian Sea, giving the ayatollahs a valuable outlet beyond the reach of Iraqi fighter jets.
But it is the informal trade – smuggling of oil, diesel and other sanctioned goods – where Iran has made the most of its borders with Turkey and Pakistan. But that was before sanctions were lifted in 2016 after the nuclear agreement. Tehran is now scrambling to restore those old channels.
It will be interesting to see how Islamabad and Ankara deal with Tehran’s need to circumvent sanctions through these two jurisdictions. For one, both Pakistan and Turkey will seal their borders with Iran next year with walls and barriers.
Pakistan is fencing the border instead of building a wall, starting with Afghanistan and ending with Iran at the sea. The Turkish wall will run 144 km when completed. Pakistan has a bigger challenge at 959 km. Pakistani officials avoid discussing the Iran fence publicly. Their Iranian counterparts, however, are also pressing ahead with fencing their side of the border with Pakistan.
For Pakistan, a lot has changed since the days when it allowed Tehran to use Karachi during the war with Iraq. The clerics were still new in power in Tehran and Islamabad wanted to repent for being known as a close ally of the ousted Shah. But in 1990s, the hardline IRGC became a strategic partner of India.
This meant that Iran under the ayatollahs entered a strategic competition mode with Pakistan, often working with New Delhi to undercut Pakistani regional influence. As a result, in the 2000s, Iran preferred to support India-backed factions in Afghanistan than accept Pakistan’s offer to jointly back Taliban government.
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, or CPEC, became a new point of contention in the 2010s. In 2016, Pakistan busted a vast Indian terror network based in Iran that destabilized Karachi and Pakistani Balochistan through terrorism, exploiting ethnic and sectarian fault lines.
Iran’s foreign policy, especially in the Gulf and Yemen, remains a headache for Pakistani policymakers because it threatens Islamabad’s economic and energy interests, not to mention the largest Pakistani diaspora in the Gulf region.
If American sanctions succeed in curbing Iran’s role in regional wars, this could help Pakistan’s own efforts to stem IRGC recruitment of young Pakistani Shia men to fight in Syria. The Iranian paramilitary is recruiting Pakistanis and Afghans because young Iranians shun ayatollahs’ foreign adventures.
If President Trump declines India’s request to exempt Iran’s Chabahar port from sanctions, this will deal a blow to joint Iran-India plans to use the port to end landlocked Afghanistan’s reliance on Pakistan.
Despite the high stakes, Islamabad has not lobbied Washington against a Chabahar exemption, though diplomats say both New Delhi and Tehran have been lobbying Beijing to shift its interments from Gwadar to Chabahar due to perennial security issues in Pakistan.
While working with Iran, both Turkey and Pakistan remain wary of Iranian government’s anility to create unrest in the region if the sanctions threaten the ayatollahs’ hold on power.