Pakistan strategy in the Caspian Sea between Iran and Azerbaijan

A meeting between Iranian Navy Commander Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi and Pakistan’s Naval Chief Admiral Zafar Mahmood Abbasi, in 2019 (Credits: Mehr News Agency, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Geopolitical Report 2785-2598 Volume 12 Issue 9
Author: Silvia Boltuc

Islamabad strategy in the Eurasian geopolitical chessboard aims at strengthening cooperation with Iran and Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea to create a transit corridor that might boost Pakistani import-export and commercial trade in the region. 

Pakistan wants to increase its influence and presence in the Caspian Sea, considering the outstanding geopolitical role that the region play as an interconnector between Europe and Asia, logistic hub, and energy market. To pursue this strategy, Islamabad has discussed the possibility of strengthening cooperation with Iran and Azerbaijan. These two regional actors recently confronted each other due to Baku’s project of realising the Zangezur corridor (Azerbaijan-Iran crisis and Tehran-Yerevan’s new transit route).

In recent years, the Iranian and Pakistani navies have increased security and maritime cooperation and conducted several joint exercises in the Indian Ocean and the Sea of Oman. This summer, the chief of staff of the Pakistani Navy, Admiral Amjad Khan Niazi, met with the Commander of the Iranian Navy, Admiral Shahram Irani and planned a visit to the Iranian Navy’s northern bases on the Caspian Sea coast in August. At the beginning of October, the Iranian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bagheri Kani, after paying a visit in Qatar, met in Islamabad his Pakistani counterpart, Sohail Mahmoud, to discuss the Afghan situation.

A few weeks later, the Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, Major General Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, after being invited by Chief of Staff of the Pakistani Army, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, visited Islamabad. The representatives of the two countries discussed cooperation in the military field and have agreed on regular joint naval exercises. Deputy Minister Bagheri, together with the Iranian ambassador in Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Hosseini and the Iranian defence attaché, Mustafa Kanbarpour, also met Pakistani Foreign Minister Imran Khan and General Nadeem Raza, Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, visiting together naval and military structures of Pakistan such as the port of Karachi and the airbase of Nur Khan.

While relations between the two countries have intensified in recent months, reaching joint goals, Islamabad and Tehran have different agendas on Afghanistan and the Caspian Sea. 

During this summer, when the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan collapsed, the Taliban invited both Pakistan and Iran (along with Turkey, China, Russia, and Qatar) to recognise the establishment of the Islamic Emirate on September 11th, 2021 (The new geopolitical game of Afghanistan). Iran refused to recognise the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan officially and also condemned the Pakistani Air Force military action in the Panjshir Valley in support of the Taliban against the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (according to local sources, the Pakistani military operation caused the death of the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan’s spokesman, Fahim Dashti).

Regarding Afghanistan, Iran has balanced its foreign policy between supporting Tajik and Hazara minorities as the Shiite community and establishing a dialogue with the Taliban. On the one hand, Iran wants to avoid the Afghan crisis turning into a civil war that would destabilise the region, threaten the Iranian borders, and mine Tehran’s regional interest, as Ismail Qaani, Chief of Quds forces, recently highlighted. On the other hand,  Tehran aims at maintaining a dialogue with the Taliban since they represent an inalienable reality in the country and a political-military force that will be part of the Afghan society for long. In this regard, the acting Deputy Minister of Information and Culture, Zabiullah Mujahid, stated that the new Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan discussed economic issues and possible future energy supplies to Afghanistan with the Iranian Minister of Petroleum Rostan Ghasemi.

The relationship between Islamabad and Tehran worsened in mid-September when Pakistan took part in the joint military exercises “Three Brothers 2021” in the Caspian Sea with Turkey and Azerbaijan. The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Saeed Khatibzadeh, defined the exercises as’ illegal’, arguing that the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea states that the military presence of actors other than the five coastal countries is prohibited. Since relations between Azerbaijan and Iran were also severely threatened when Baku arrested two Iranian drivers on the Goris-Kapan highway in Armenia in September, the “Three Brothers 2021′ exercises prompted the Iranian armed forces to move close to the borders with Azerbaijan.

Pakistan is also interested in corridors through the Caspian Sea, and therefore is enhancing its ties with Azerbaijan. In September 2002, Pakistan and Azerbaijan signed the agreement of Cooperation in Military and Defence Fields in the city of Karachi. Now the cooperation is increasing, as confirmed on March 2021, when Azerbaijani Foreign Minister, Ceyhun Bayramov, met with the Pakistani counterpart, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, within the framework of the Ministerial Conference called “The Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process”, and discussed bilateral cooperation in the field of aviation.

Islamabad openly sided with Baku even during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan stated Pakistan had a role in the war raging across the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Some Armenian sources claim that there were Pakistani armed fighters present among the Azerbaijani ranks during the conflict. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Pakistan became the second country recognising Azerbaijan as an independent state on December 12th, 1991, following Turkey. In addition, they did not recognise Armenia as a state. In 2016, fearing its challenging positions against the country, Armenia blocked Islamabad’s attempt to become an observer at the Collective Security Treaty Organisation. Furthermore, Azerbaijan, Pakistan and Turkey have continuously backed each other on scenarios such as Kashmir and Cyprus.

Currently, Pakistan has received massive investments from China, becoming part of the Belt and Road Initiative with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. The Chinese also implemented the Pakistani port of Gwadar, which is a direct concurrent of the Iranian port of Chabahar (Geopolitical del porto iraniano di Chabahar). The port of Chabahar was implemented with Indian investment with the ultimate goal to reach central Asia markets through Afghanistan and Russia, being part of the International North-South Transit Corridor (INSTC) and monitoring the Chinese presence in the Persian Gulf (Iran-Russia cooperation might support Tehran’s foreign strategy in EurasiaRussia discussed with India security cooperation in Afghanistan).

Pakistan is now looking at Azerbaijan to reach Europe and Russia by replacing Iran. Islamabad is interested in the railway line restored by the Azeris following the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, which connects the autonomous region of Nakhchivan with Baku for its trade, including military supplies.

Conclusions

Turkey’s goal of serving as a transit route for East-West trade through projects like China’s Belt and Road Initiative, including Pakistan, puts the countries in direct competition with Iran. The collaboration between Ankara, Baku and Islamabad undermine Iranian-Pakistani relations. While cooperation between the two countries has notably increased, Islamabad’s aims worry Tehran. The role played by Pakistan in the rise to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the competition of the Pakistani port of Gwadar with the Iranian port of Chabahar, and the attempt by Islamabad to replace Iran in the regional corridors exacerbate the position of Tehran, which currently balances its regional policy between partnership and confrontation with local actors.

Turkey’s presence in the Caspian Sea means a NATO outpost in the region. On the other hand, a collaboration between Islamabad and Tehran is necessary to stabilise the borders and regions at risk of terrorism, such as Baluchistan. The Chinese investments in Iran could eventually change the dynamics of relations between the two countries and incorporate them both into the BRI, undermining Indian positions.