Dr. Seyyed Ebrahim Raisi, president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, paid a state visit to Pakistan on April 22-24, 2024. Besides meeting the Pakistani leadership, he visited the mausoleum of the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, in Karachi and Allama Muhammad Iqbal in Lahore. Iranian president was conferred an honorary doctoral degree in Islamic Studies by the Karachi University, and the first lady Dr. Jamileh Alamolhoda, launched her book on ‘Islam and Aurat’ translated in Urdu by the Faculty of Islamic Studies, University of Karachi.

As part of the public diplomacy, the Iranian president met with Pakistani religious scholars, ulema and notables, and the first lady met with the women entrepreneurs, intellectuals and opinion-makers.

The First Lady was also conferred the honorary doctoral degree in Education Sciences by the National University of Modern Languages, Islamabad. She also unveiled the English version of her book The Art of Feminine Living at the NUML. As a goodwill gesture, the 11th avenue of Islamabad was named ‘Iran Avenue’, which was jointly inaugurated by the Iranian president and Pakistani premier. Interestingly, in Tehran, a road named ‘Mohammad Ali Jenah Expressway’ is near the historic Azadi Square.

The official delegation meeting between the two sides was held, and eight Memorandum of Understanding (MOUs), especially on Security Cooperation, Joint Cooperation on Terrorism and Joint Free Economic Zones, were signed. After the meeting between President Ebrahim Raisi and Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif, “the two leaders reaffirmed commitment to expand wide-ranging bilateral cooperation, particularly in the areas of trade, energy, connectivity, culture and people-to-people contacts.

Both sides agreed to increase the volume of bilateral trade to 10 billion U.S. dollars in the next five years.”  (Press Information Department, April 22) During the joint press conference, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif said, ‘We have to keep this relationship strong despite the challenges we feel both.’ The Iranian president said that there are ‘some common faiths and religions which are inter-connected and no one can disconnect them…both countries are determined to fight against terrorism, organized crime, narcotics and different form and manifestations of insecurity which endanger our two countries and at the time the region.’ (Dawn, April 22) In a separate meeting between the interior ministers of the two countries, it was agreed to ban the terrorist organizations from working against each other. (Geo News, April 23).

The visit is taking place in the backdrop of dangerous happenings in the Middle East, especially the escalation of the Gaza genocide into Iran-Israel clashes, Iran-Pakistan border strikes and the visit of the Saudi foreign minister to Pakistan.

It has always been a dilemma for Pakistan to balance its relations between Iran and Saudia and between China and the United States. Though the Chinese brokered the Iran-Saudi Peace Agreement, which should have eased the situation for Pakistan, this high-profile visit of the Iranian president has raised concerns. However, in the escalated border strikes between Iran and Pakistan, this seem to be a reset to the bilateral relations.

‘Raisi’s three-day visit is aimed at resetting diplomatic ties but ensuring that bilateral goals remain on track… This includes the construction of a gas pipeline that import-reliant Islamabad, which last year spent $17 billion on gas imports, is hoping will help stimulate economic growth…However, Washington has warned that Islamabad could face sanctions for going ahead with the project.’ (Al-Monitor, April 22) On the other hand, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif is expected to visit Saudi Arabia on April 28 to finalize the Saudi investment of $5 billion in Pakistan and possibly to ally the fears of Saudi leadership viz-a-viz the visit of the Iranian president to Pakistan.

The US has already conveyed to Pakistan that the IP gas pipeline can bring sanctions to Pakistan, and on the eve of the Iranian president’s visit to Pakistan, the US State Department warned against the “potential risk of sanctions” in light of the business deals between Pakistan and Iran. Without mentioning Pakistan in a statement, the State Department spokesperson said, “We advise anyone considering business deals with Iran to be aware of the potential risk of sanctions.” (Geo News, April 23)

The Iranian visit is aimed at spurring the economic, trade and security cooperation between the two countries. The present bilateral trade between the two countries is around $2 billion annually. The boosting of bilateral trade to the $10 billion mark seems unattainable. Still, the border markets and the establishment of Joint Free Economic Zones, besides illegal and barter trade, can lead to substantive trade increases. There is huge potential for bilateral trade between the two countries as there is an Iran-China multi-billion agreement to enhance their trade to new heights.

The Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, which Pakistan has finally allowed to build its part of 80 kilometres, is expected to meet 35% of its energy requirement; it would help to ease the energy crisis and save billions of oil import bills. Importantly, the ratification of security cooperation agreements and cooperation on terrorism would serve both states’ larger security concerns besides stabilizing the regional security environment. Their agreement and resolve to enhance mutual security augers well for the two countries and the region at large, which is facing a surge of terrorism and their territory being used against each other.

The geopolitical imperatives, human/drug trafficking and the situation in Afghanistan are important variables that compel both countries to work for enhanced security cooperation and effective border management mechanisms.   

Most of the foreign dignitaries confine their visits to Islamabad. Still, the Iranian president made it a point to visit the historical/cultural cities of Lahore and Karachi, the city of the Pakistani father of the nation. The Iranians have a great reverence for the founder of Pakistan Muhammad Ali Jinnah and the poet-thinker Allama Muhammad Iqbal, whom they call Iqbal-e-Lahori (Iqbal of Lahore).

Importantly, Lahore is the historical and cultural capital of Pakistan and the testament of a Persian architect built by the Persian-Mughal Empire. Persian has remained the official language of the sub-continent for 700 years, and Persian culture, cuisine and traditions have been very part of the Muslim elite. Therefore, visiting Lahore and Karachi to pay homage to the great Pakistani leaders is part of Iranian public diplomacy that reflects their outreach to the people of Pakistan beyond official contacts.

Moreover, the conferring of an honorary doctoral degree by Karachi University to the Iranian president is a recognition of his intellectual/academic contribution. Also, the inauguration of the book by the First Lady reflects Pakistanis’ inherent reverence for Persian culture.

There is vast potential for cooperation in trade, commerce, and security between Iran and Pakistan, but both countries face tremendous internal and external challenges. But despite these challenges, both have withstood the test of time to keep their relations afloat. The signing of multiple MOUs and agreements needs serious implementation, which in the past has been lacking. Therefore, it has to be seen how the bilateral relations between Iran and Pakistan go beyond rhetoric for the mutual benefit of the two countries, their people and the region at large, especially in the backdrop of the US and Saudi pressures.

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