“You need to get out of this Iran phobia,” the Lahore industrialist Babar Ali told us. Babar Ali argued that greater trade and economic cooperation between Pakistan and Iran could help defuse Sunni-Sh’ia conflict in Pakistan, which supplies an ideological impetus for Pakistani jihadi groups that threaten U.S. interests Pakistan and Iran were partners with the United States during the 1950s, but the two countries have diverged profoundly. Relations have been strained by the rise of Sunni fundamentalism in Pakistan, with its strong anti-Sh’ia component. Many Pakistanis believe that a proxy battle between Saudi Arabia, through Sunni militants, and Iran, through Sh’ia militants, is being fought on their soil.
At the state level, Iran has supported the Persian-speaking Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, while Pakistan has sided with Pashtun groups, including the Taliban during its years in power. Additionally, both countries contain restive Baluch minorities, in the adjoining provinces of Sistan in Iran and Baluchistan in Pakistan. Iran now fears Baluch attacks from Pakistani soil.
Certain hard-line U.S. analysts have long argued that the United States should support Baluch separatists in Iran as part of a program of pressure for Iranian regime change. This is not a good idea; many Pakistanis believe that U.S. support for Baluch separatists would also include support for the Baluch movement in Pakistan. (Indeed, many Pakistanis believe that the United States is already furtively assisting Baluch separatists. This is an issue that needs to be addressed if the relationship is going to move beyond the current trust deficit.) Ethnic rivalry poses an explosive risk throughout the region, and the tactic of offering support to an insurgency in the name of weakening an unfriendly regime has historically led to damaging blowback against the United States. By contrast, the proposed Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline would run through both Sistan in Iran and Baluchistan in Pakistan, and would give both countries an interest in settling longstanding tensions with their Baluch minorities.