The President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, recently attended a summit in Pakistan to meet with Islamabad’s Asif Ali Zardari and Yousuf Reza Gilani as well as Afghan President Hamid Karzai to discuss, among other issues, a peace process in Afghanistan and cooperative energy agreements between the three countries.
It is not clear if the Iranian leader discussed Teheran’s nascent nuclear program or not. However, if Ahmadinejad raised this issue, it likely would have promoted some interesting responses from his Pakistani hosts.
Pakistan reportedly has the nuclear bomb; a program that emerged after its historical rival India developed such a weapon in the early 1970s. In May 1998, Pakistan detonated five nuclear devices, just a few weeks after India's second nuclear test.
So, given that Pakistan has extensive experience with nuclear weapons technology, is it conceivable that they would offer any assistance with Iran’s embryonic atomic project?
International Business Times spoke with an expert of Middle East/South Asian politics to discuss this topic.
Dilshod Achilov is a professor of political science at East Tennessee State University, in Johnson City, Tenn.
IB TIMES: What kind of diplomatic relations do Iran and Pakistan have?
ACHILOV: Iranian-Pakistani relations have deep historical roots. The Urdu language of Pakistan, for example, was highly influenced by the Persian, Turkish and Arabic languages. Bilateral relations between Iran and Pakistan, especially in trade and commerce, have been traditionally strong with some exceptions in terms of foreign policy at different times in history. After the Iranian revolution of 1979, the bilateral relations between the two countries deteriorated, as Pakistan was a strong ally of the U.S., whereas the newly formed Iranian regime aligned itself with Russia and China.
Today, Iran and Pakistan has a relatively stable and balanced relationship: the ties are neither great nor dreadful. It is probably more accurate to describe current bilateral relations as tense -- which contain contrasting elements of amity, skepticism and rivalry.
IB TIMES: Pakistan already has the nuclear bomb – have they offered Iran any help in developing nuclear power? Or is Pakistan constrained by pressure from Islamabad's ally, the United States?
ACHILOV: Little is known about the exact nature of Pakistani-Iranian nuclear cooperation. What we know, however, is that Pakistani top nuclear scientists (including Abdul Qadeer Khan) did cooperate with Iranian officials in transferring sensitive nuclear know-how in the past.
It is highly unlikely that Pakistani scientists acted alone or without the government’s direct or tacit consent.
The Unites States has long pressured Pakistan to protect its nuclear secrets from proliferation. But Pakistan has long been playing a “double game” with regards to its bilateral relations with the US.
Pakistan, at times, often uses its “Iran card” against the U.S.; and sometime uses the “U.S. card” against Tehran when it deems necessary.
IB TIMES: Pakistan is predominantly Sunni Muslim, while Iran is Shiite. Does this complicate their relationship?
ACHILOV: Yes indeed, religious denominations play an important divisive role in Iranian-Pakistani relations. Ideologically, both countries are at odds with one another. Pakistan associates itself with the greater Sunni Muslim world in which there is little toleration toward the Shiite Iranian regime. On the other hand, Iran views itself as an ideological rival to Pakistan’s regional geo-strategic aspirations. For instance, each country has been seeking wider influence in the newly independent post-Soviet Muslim-majority Central Asian countries, including the volatile Afghanistan.
In other words, the Central Asian region is a major battleground for regional influence.
IB TIMES: Does Pakistan have better relations with Iran's enemy Saudi Arabia than with Teheran?
ACHILOV: Pakistan maintains far better, and stronger relations with Saudi Arabia than it does with Iran.
Saudi Arabia has long been a strategic supporter of Pakistan. To cite a few examples: Saudi Arabia supported Pakistan against its arch-rival India; extended political and financial support to help Pakistan fund the mujahedeen against the Soviet army in Afghanistan; maintained strong military cooperation.
In addition, Saudi Arabia is a leading donor and a sponsor of major civil welfare projects inside Pakistan. We also need to highlight the sizable number (up to 2 million) of Pakistani migrant workers in Saudi Arabia
IB TIMES: Given that relations between Pakistan and the U.S. have been deteriorating since the killing of Osama bin Laden, would Pakistan have more incentive now to assist its neighbor, Iran?
ACHILOV: It is unlikely that Pakistan will embrace a full-scale pro-Iranian foreign policy. However, in reaction to the U.S. cutting aid to Pakistan (or as a result of the overall deterioration of bilateral relations), Pakistan may signal a closer strategic cooperation with Iran, Russia and China.
Iran and Pakistan are already two active observers of the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization).
IB TIMES: Iran has pretty strong trade and economic relations with India. How does Iran balance its relations with India and Pakistan?
ACHILOV: Iran is an isolated state. Thus, Iran is in need of regional economic relations to have access to export and import basic commodities. India is a huge market with big opportunities. Recently, Iranian-Indian relations have significantly improved and reached new high levels of mutual cooperation. This, of course, irritated Pakistani officials.
At the same time, Iran appears to have balanced its interests with both Pakistan and India. One way to keep this balance is to have more economic -- rather than military -- cooperation with India while keeping all other options open.
The recent tightening of Western sanctions on Iranian exports (and Iranian banks), nevertheless, has taken a heavy toll on Iranian exports and imports, while significantly impeding Iranian trading space with regional partners.
IB TIMES: Who might be helping Iran develop nuclear technology and weapons? Russia, China, North Korea?
ACHILOV: Russia is the main supplier of technology and know-how to Iran. In fact, Russia built the Bushehr nuclear plant in Iran, which started to produce electricity in 2011.
On the other hand, North Korea is believed to have transferred some highly sensitive information including nuclear know-how and long-range missile technology.
There is little evidence suggesting Chinese involvement in Iran’s nuclear program. Nevertheless, China is one of the main political supporters of Iran in the world arena.
IB TIMES: Would a nuclear Iran present any kind of threat to Pakistan?
ACHILOV: At the minimum, a nuclear-armed Iran would shift the balance of power in the region and present a threat to all countries in the Middle East and South Asia, including Pakistan. Moreover, a nuclear-capable Iran would instigate a large-scale arms race in the region. The rivalry between Pakistan and Iran would reach a “new normal” and regional geo-strategic competition would get more tense, more uncertain, and less predictable.