Iran’s expansion of economic and political relations with Pakistan and certain other regional partners has been quicker in coming, although it too has faced some roadblocks. Monday’s reports indicated that Tehran and Islamabad were both aiming for a dramatic expansion in trade to amounts in the vicinity of 5 billion dollars. This is a steep increase over the 1.32 billion dollars in trade that the two achieved between 2008 and 2009, and a staggering increase over the 432 million dollars that was exchanged between them between 2010 and 2011, after sanctions had damaged the Iranian economy and prompted US partners to limit their exchanges with the Islamic Republic.
While the accomplishment of this goal may be a long time in coming, there are some indicators that the two countries are making significant moves in that direction. For instance, the Associated Press reports that Rouhani’s visit saw the signing of a number of memoranda of understanding, representing cooperation in economic matters and other areas of international policy.
The visit also recalled attention to some of the specific projects that may help to contribute to rapid growth in the volume of Iranian-Pakistani trade. These include the long-delayed construction of the Pakistani side of an oil pipeline between the two countries, and the joint development of ports linking the two countries’ maritime trade. Iranian officials have also recently commented upon the feasibility of selling electricity to energy-poor Pakistan.
But the AP also pointed out that these plans are likely to face competition from Saudi Arabia, which has long vied with its regional rival Iran for influence over Pakistan and other countries that are politically and economically caught in between the two Middle Eastern powerhouses. The Saudis’ commitment to forestalling Iranian political growth is especially obvious in light of worsening conflicts over the civil wars in Yemen and Syria, and also following the January attacks by Iranian mobs on the Saudi embassy and consulate.
Some Iranian officials, chiefly those affiliated with the supposedly moderate Rouhani presidency, have made efforts to portray the Saudis as the aggressors in this ongoing contest for power. On Monday, the Big News Network reported that Rouhani himself had addressed this issue from Islamabad, saying that Iran was prepared to do whatever it might take to reconcile with its arch-rival.
But the Saudis, for their part, have pushed back against these public relations efforts. Also on Monday, Agence France-Presse, reported that Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir had spoken on this issue in a press conference the previous day and insisted that the Saudis had been attempting to reconcile with Iran for the better part of three decades, to no avail.
Jubeir went on to say that Iran “knows what to do to have normal relations with Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Islamic world and that is to change its behavior.” Such comments clearly evoke the perception of imperial purposes in the region for the Islamic Republic of Iran. That perception has prompted the Saudis and several of their partners to join in a coalition, the main function of which is to fight the Houthi rebellion against President Abed Rabu Mansour Hadi in Yemen.
The Arab coalition’s mission in Yemen is certainly of primary importance to Saudi Arabia, but the Saudis and Iranians also support opposite sides of the Syrian Civil War. While Iran actively supplies and fights alongside the forces defending Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, the Saudi kingdom stands alongside its traditional allies in the US and elsewhere in the West, in the sense of advocating for the end of the Assad regime and the creation of a government in its place that would be willing to confront the Islamic State terrorists without relying upon an alliance with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Even though the international community recently brokered a tentative cease-fire among the non-IS combatants, there is little to no evidence that the conflict between foreign powers is on the wane, especially in light of the fact that Iran has declared its intention to stay the course in its active defense of Assad. Breitbart pointed to this fact on Monday, noting that Ali Shamkhani, the head of the Iranian National Security Council appended a vow of full support to his congratulations upon Assad’s reclamation of the city of Palmyra.
Breitbart also pointed out that the offensive there took place with air support from Russian forces. Practically speaking, this indicates that cooperation between Iran and Russia has not seriously diminished, even though Western policymakers had been holding out hope that Russia could become a serious partner in negotiations aimed at a permanent political solution.
Indeed, Reuters reported on Monday that the presidents of Iran and Russia had exchanged views and announced mutual commitment to increased cooperation in multiple areas, including the Syria crisis. Some global policy analysts have long anticipated the formation of an eastern bloc of nations, led by Russia, China, and Iran, that could present a serious threat to Western interests. Each instance of cooperation among these powers recalls attention to this potential alliance and the impact it could have on global conflicts.
In keeping with these concerns, recently there were reports of a military and defense exhibition that took place in Baghdad in early March, which seemingly showcased the prevalence of arms originating in these three would-be eastern bloc countries, especially Iran. According to these reports, Iran represented the most diverse, even if not the most advanced or reliable weapons in that exhibition, and that many of these have made their way into conflict areas in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria. Furthermore, it stated that the unproven nature of Iran’s domestically-produced weapons has a ready testing ground in the form of terrorist groups like Hezbollah, which Iran supplies.
Iran’s regional influence through these groups is another reason for the escalating conflict between Iran and its major Middle Eastern rivals, a number of which recently declared their formal recognition of Hezbollah as a terrorist group. Since then, the Arab states have taken some measures to confront the presence of this and other Iran-linked elements in their country, as evidenced by a report in The Tower indicating that Kuwait had ordered the deportation of 60 Lebanese nationals over alleged ties to Hezbollah.