The Iran factor in CPEC

By Ayaz Ahmed

After considering the long-term feasibility and effectiveness of  CPEC, Iran has displayed its inclination to join the grand economic corridor. If  CPEC is converted into the China-Pakistan-Iran Economic Corridor (CPIEC), it will make the corridor a greater and safer game-changer in terms of regional trade and connectivity.

Both Pakistan and China should give serious consideration to the Iranian request of joining CPEC in order to make the grand project a prodigious success by minimising its security threats. After the successful conclusion of the Iran-P5+1 nuclear deal, energy-rich Iran is once again set to become a major regional economic and military power in future.

Iran’s exceptional geostrategic and geo-economic location, potential energy resources and developing economy will presumably make CPIEC more effective, less perilous and more efficient for Pakistan and China to reap richer dividends.

CPIEC will greatly help Pakistan and Iran make the Gwadar and Chabahar ports supplementary rather than disruptively competitive. It is likely that Iran will provide China a greater role in completing the remaining construction works of the strategically important Chabahar Port, thus lessening Indian engagement with the port. After making both the ports fully operational, Pakistan and Iran may formally determine their shares of Central Asian exports and imports, thereby dispelling the impression of projected competition and zero-sum game.

Second, Iran’s partnership in the grand economic corridor will immensely assist in the better security of CPIEC. Having a stake in the corridor, Iran will not permit regional powers to use its soil for fomenting militancy and insurgency in Balochistan. The clandestine networks of RAW reportedly based in southern and eastern Iran could then be easily dismantled.

More importantly, certain quarters within the Iranian security establishment have been secretly funnelling substantial money and sophisticated arms to some sectarian, militant and insurgent groups based in the bordering and central areas of Balochistan. After becoming a member in the project, Iran could be persuaded to sternly rein in these disruptive elements so as to safeguard Balochistan from insurgency and sectarianism.

Furthermore, Pakistan can seek all-out Iranian assistance to block the burgeoning cross-border smuggling of cheap Iranian oil and drugs to Balochistan. Narcotics and oil smuggling have made non-state actors financially sound to continue their troublesome shenanigans in the province. Proper regulation of oil black-marketing will help both the countries earn substantial revenue.

Third, after connecting Iran to China via Pakistan through  CPIEC, bilateral trade between Iran and Pakistan and Iran and China will increase manifold. Both Pakistan and Iran have already decided to increase annual trade volumes between the two countries to $5bn by 2021. Closer economic ties will also help Pakistan import a great amount of cheap Iranian electricity to industrialise the city of Gwadar and decrease hours of outages plaguing other parts of the country.

Closer economic ties with Iran will facilitate Pakistan and China to export more and more Iranian oil and gas. The Iran-Pakistan (IP) pipeline could be expanded to include China as a member. With financial and technical support from China, Pakistan will be able to construct its portion of 785 km of IP pipeline in the shortest span of time. Therefore, Iran will gain the much-needed revenue to revive its sanctions-hit economy, while Pakistan and China will import enough Iranian gas to meet their ever-increasing requirements of natural gas.

Lastly, greater cooperation between Pakistan and Iran will be instrumental in weeding out hardened terrorists and militants from the region. Iran will not permit Taliban leaders to exploit its border areas to penetrate into Pakistan as former Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mansour Akhtar did. Pakistan and Iran can pressurise Afghanistan to take stringent actions against TTP fugitives hiding in eastern Afghanistan.

But Pakistan and China should not forget that a longer corridor entails more risks and threats to be tackled. After finding Iran in this regional bandwagon, the new American president could think of re-imposing sanctions on Iran. Moreover, the Indo-American bloc could expedite hectic efforts to foment terrorism, militancy and insurgency in Balochistan and the terror-stricken tribal areas of Pakistan.

It is imperative to craft some needed counterterrorism, counter-militancy and counter-sectarianism measures so as to protect CPIEC from regional terrorism and hegemonic designs of the US and India. Both Pakistan and China should stand with Iran diplomatically through thick and thin.

The writer is editor of The Asia Watch.

The article was originally published in The News on September 16, 2016.

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