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New Iran-Pakistan border crossing has implications beyond trade

The opening could indicate a tilt toward China by Iran and comes at a time when there have been small tensions in Islamabad’s relations with Riyadh.

Pakistan and Iran inaugurated a second official border crossing Dec. 19 at the strategically located crossing point of Gwadar-Ramdhan. Situated in Iran’s southeastern province of Sistan-Baluchistan, which lies adjacent to Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, this new gateway is now the shortest land route connecting the port of Gwadar to Iran.

The idea for a second border crossing had recently been suggested by Iran. On his fourth visit to Pakistan since the Imran Khan government assumed power, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif came to Islamabad in November. During meetings with the Pakistani leadership, the proposed land crossing remained at the top of the agenda.

According to reports, Zarif announced that since Iran was opening the Rimdan crossing in a week’s time, the Pakistani side could also open the Gabd (Gwadar) crossing point to promote trade. Both sides agreed, and the second gateway opened in a matter of weeks.

Denoting a new level of trust and understanding between the two states, the opening of the Rimdan-Gabd gateway is an encouraging development for Pakistani-Iranian trade. In addition, tourists and religious pilgrims from both sides will also be able to visit both the important port cities with convenience.

On the day of the opening, Pakistan was represented by Minister for Defense Production Zubaida Jalal. Describing it as a historic occasion, she observed that the people of Gwadar had long awaited immigration facilities like those at the old border gateway at Taftan.

Before the opening, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh also declared that the new border crossing would “raise the economic and trade exchanges,” and he observed that Iran gives “special priority to interaction and cooperation with neighbors.” Sharing an extended 959-kilometer-long border between them, it was only a matter of time before Iran and Pakistan announced more crossings for increasing bilateral trade.

As special assistant to the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Seyed Rasoul Mousavi noted on Twitter while announcing the new crossing, the “two countries share only one Miriavah border crossing at 909 km.” These days the two countries are mulling over opening more crossings — Zarif has suggested one more gateway at Pishin-Mand, and it is due to open in February 2021.

In addition to trade, these latest moves by Iran and Pakistan have some geopolitical and regional significance as well.

First, having streamlined road connectivity between the strategic ports of Gwadar and Chabahar, the second gateway has practically linked Iran up with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

At last, the southern parts of Iran and Pakistan will be connected. For nearly 70 years, the only official crossing point between Tehran and Islamabad was the one at Mirjavah-Taftan, which was more toward the north and close to Quetta, the provincial capital of Baluchistan.

Nearer the coastline areas, at a distance of just 130 kilometers from the port of Chabahar in Iran, this new crossing at Rimdan-Gabd can give the Pakistani port of Gwadar access to westward corridors via the shortest land route possible.

As reported by IRNA, the Rimdan border at the “zero-point of the Iran-Pakistan border is the best route to reach 37% of the world’s population (Pakistan, China and India). … [This border post will be] one of the official bases for increasing trade with Pakistan and connecting onwards to its most important economic [port of Karachi].”

During his visit to Pakistan in May 2019, Zarif had also proposed that Pakistan’s Gwadar port be connected with Iran’s Chabahar port. This may be why the new gateway connects the two ports, which have often been described as “rivals” or even “sisters” by various experts. Just 100 kilometers from the Pakistan border, Chabahar also happens to be the only Iranian port exempt from some US sanctions.

As Iranian state-controlled Press TV then reported, Zarif had said that both ports could complement each other, explaining, “We can connect Chabahar and Gwadar, and then through that connect Gwadar to our entire railroad system, from Iran to the North Corridor, through Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, and also through Azerbaijan, Russia and through Turkey.”

Opening further possibilities, these new routes might even suggest a tilt toward China by Iran. Negotiations for a 25-year strategic partnership deal with Beijing have been in the process for a long time, but an official announcement or finalization of an agreement remains pending. Ostensibly, Iran is keeping all of its options open, and its final direction may be clearer in the months ahead after the administration of President-elect Joe Biden takes over in Washington.

From the regional and political aspect, these new measures for Pakistani-Iranian connectivity have materialized at a time when Saudi-Pakistani ties are still going through an awkward phase.

Iran and Pakistan have taken a big step, even as Islamabad and Riyadh are moving farther away from each other. What makes the move even more unusual is that Islamabad has always taken pains to maintain a delicate balance in its ties between both Tehran and Riyadh.

The recent tensions first started in December 2019 when Pakistan wanted to participate in the inaugural conference of a new Muslim organization jointly hosted by Malaysia, Turkey and Qatar in Kuala Lumpur. Not being a member of the new forum, Saudi Arabia felt it might become a rival for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), of which it is a leading member. In the end, Islamabad gave in to Riyadh’s pressure by backing out at the last minute.

Meanwhile, Pakistan remained unhappy about the OIC role — arguing the Kashmir issue was not highlighted sufficiently in that forum. Now, months later, Pakistan has had to urgently return a $1 billion installment from a $3 billion soft loan it had taken from Saudi Arabia, and China finally came to the rescue. Therefore, coolness has only grown between the two strategic allies.

In the meantime, Indo-Saudi ties have been on a new high, and the Indian army chief visited Saudi Arabia recently to upgrade military ties. Even though Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman did not meet him, it was around this time that the new route linking Gwadar to Chabahar had been opened.

As Islamabad and Riyadh are old allies, the relationship is likely to survive such temporary glitches.

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