Iran has formally expressed its desire to join Pakistan and China in CPEC (the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor). Amid the news that U.S. President Donald Trump is barring people from Iran and six other Muslim countries from entering the United States, Iran is seeking closer ties to Pakistan, its brotherly Islamic nation, and wants to join CPEC.
Whether it’s a coincidence or not, in less than 24 hours, two more authoritative voices from Iran spoke out about their country’s eagerness to join Pakistan and China’s highly-lucrative CPEC project. What’s even more fascinating is that the first of the two new pro-CPEC signals from the Iranian regime came on Wednesday, the same day Trump had signed an executive order barring immigrants from Iran from entering the U.S. The second one came a day later.
On Thursday, Iran reiterated its desire to join CPEC and offered its “full potential” to benefit the game-changing $46 billion project. Addressing the Oxbridge Lecture in Islamabad, Iran’s Ambassador Mehdi Honardoost said his country is “eager to join CPEC with its full capabilities, possibilities and abilities.”
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It’s been four months since Iranian President Hassan Rouhani initially said his country was keen to join CPEC during his meeting with Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif in September. Iran’s interest in joining the multi-billion dollar project was met warmly in China, which welcomed Tehran’s interest. In fact, China’s envoy in Islamabad, Sun Weidong, said Beijing would like to see Iran as part of CPEC.
Pakistan also welcomed Iran’s interest in the project, describing it as a “good step.” Now it appears that Iran wants to lay out the groundwork for its formal inclusion in the joint China-Pakistan project, and there are several reasons why Tehran has decided to make the move right now. (But more about that later).
India and Saudi Arabia want to keep Iran away from CPEC
No matter how much interest Iran has in joining CPEC, there are several obstacles standing in the way of its inclusion . Top two obstacles on the list are India and Saudi Arabia.
Pakistan is being pressured both from within and from the outside. From within, Islamabad may have doubts about Iran’s inclusion in CPEC due to the close association with its traditional nemesis, India. From the outside, meanwhile, Pakistan is being pressured by Saudi Arabia, its close ally and Iran’s traditional enemy.
These two reasons create certain obstacles in Iran’s participation in CPEC and create tensions in relations between Tehran and Islamabad. Iran’s Ambassador Mehdi Honardoost addressed this issue as well, acknowledging that relations between Iran and Pakistan are not at their “best point.”
Honardoost explained that Tehran and Islamabad struggle to reach that “best point” in relations due to an “external element,” which has negatively affected ties between the two nuclear-armed neighbors. Iran’s ambassador also attributed the Pak-Iran problems to different points of view due to lack of information.
One step closer to CPEC: Pakistan and Iran boost bilateral trade
Nevertheless, Honardoost said he remains hopeful that relations between Iran and Pakistan will improve, reiterating that “trade should not be affected by other developments.” Last year, the two governments agreed to boost their bilateral trade to $5 billion annually by 2021.
Honardoost revealed that Iran and Pakistan have already made huge progress, as their trade grew by about 30% over the previous year. Iran’s ambassador also said he hoped bilateral trade would keep going upwards when “other impediments are removed.”
Before Iran was hit by international sanctions, bilateral trade between with Pakistan was around $1.6 billion annually. After the economy-crippling sanctions were imposed, Pak-Iran bilateral trade was reduced to around $300 million. Now that the West lifted its sanctions against Iran due to the nuclear deal reached in 2015, the Iranian economy and, consequently, Pak-Iran bilateral trade, are slowly recovering.
Why Pakistan and China need Iran in CPEC
India, which remains Iran’s close ally, is not only strongly opposed to CPEC but has also reportedly attempted to sabotage it on several occasions. While New Delhi is clearly standing in the way of Iran’s quick and carefree inclusion in CPEC, Honardoost refused to give an unambiguous answer on the issue.
When asked how Iran intends to join CPEC while having close ties to India, Iran’s ambassador said, “It is not important if some country is not keen to join it,” without further elaborating on the issue.
While the Indian issue remains unsolved, Honardoost insisted that Iran could contribute significantly to CPEC. Iran’s ambassador stressed that his country’s rich energy resources (oil accounts for 80% of its export revenues) and its considerable advances in science and technology would prove Iran to be a valuable addition to the $46 billion CPEC project.
Honardoost also hopes that other countries will follow Iran’s example and become involved in the project as well.
“We don’t look at CPEC as just a trade, business and economic project. It is about peace and tranquillity in the region. It could help address many issues in this region.”
CPEC: is Russia joining or not?
Honardoost’s statements about Iran’s eagerness to join Pakistan and China in CPEC came less than 24 hours after the chairman of the Iranian Parliament’s Committee on Foreign and Security Policies, Alaeddin Broujerdi, said Iran, Pakistan and China “should form a triangle of cooperation which will benefit the three important countries of the region.”
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that such comments advocating for a speedy inclusion of Iran in CPEC came shortly after the Trump administration announced its plans to prevent immigrants from Iran and other six Muslim countries from entering the United States.
While many experts say Pakistan could become the next Muslim nation to be added to the infamous Muslim ban list, Broujerdi’s comments during his three-day visit to Islamabad indicate that the Iranian government wants to secure closer ties with both Pakistan and China as soon as possible.
Broujerdi also apparently implied that even India can’t stand in the way of improved Pak-Iranian relations. “No one can influence the deep-rooted cooperation” between Islamabad and Tehran, he said.
An authoritative figure of the Iranian regime advocating for forming “a triangle of cooperation” between Iran, Pakistan and China will probably be viewed negatively in India, which has been trying to pull Iran away from Pakistan for decades.
It must be noted that Broujerdi didn’t mention Russia when talking about Iran’s plans to seek closer ties with Pakistan and China. While many strategic analysts say there’s a high probability that China, Russia and Pakistan will form a superpower triangle together, some are also discussing the possibilities of creating a quadrilateral of cooperation between China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran. But Broujerdi’s exclusion of Russia from the equation may have something to do with its close ties to India, which are also viewed as a major obstacle to China-Russia-Pak friendship.
Trump may have just helped squeeze Iran into CPEC
Interestingly, both Honardoost and Broujerdi’s statements come less than a week after Trump was sworn in as U.S. President, which may suggest that Iran is willing to take serious geopolitical steps, including joining CPEC, to further cement its friendship with Pakistan. However, such a move would result in a sharp deterioration of Iran-Indian relations.
Tehran views Pakistan as a stable ally in the region, as in addition to tensions in American-Iranian relations following Trump’s ban on Iranian immigrants, the Tehran government can no longer rule out the possibility of Trump taking a more aggressive stance against its country or even walking away from the nuclear deal.
Pakistan would also greatly benefit from closer ties with Iran, as the nation might expect tough relations with the Trump administration since the U.S. President appears to be hell-bent on trying to eradicate terrorism, both in the U.S. and in the Middle East.
Pakistan, which the U.S. believes has for years sheltered terrorist elements, may find itself in trouble if Trump starts pressuring it to curb terrorism in its own borders and in the region as a whole. Also Pakistan’s close friendship with China could become a sore point for Trump, who took an anti-China stance during his presidential campaign and continues to blast Pakistan’s CPEC partner in his comments about Beijing.
And as if those weren’t enough conflicting factors involving Iran, Pakistan and CPEC, Tehran doesn’t want Islamabad to partner with Saudi Arabia, while Islamabad is equally uninterested in Tehran’s close relations with India.