Why did Iran's president Ebrahim Raisi visit Pakistan?

Raisi Pakistan
6 min read
29 April, 2024

Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi arrived in Pakistan on 22 April for a three-day visit at the invitation of President Asif Ali Zardari, the first by an Iranian leader in eight years.

During the trip, the two countries signed eight agreements and memorandums of understanding (MoUs) to strengthen their security and economic ties.

The geopolitical backdrop to the visit was, however, critical. Just over a week before, Iran launched an unprecedented barrage of missiles and drones at Israel in response to the bombing of its consulate in Damascus.

In January, meanwhile, Tehran and Islamabad’s diplomatic ties had threatened to rupture after strikes on each other’s territory.

"The visit serves as a diplomatic response to recent events, highlighting Iran's stance on de-escalation and regional stability"

Diplomatic cover for missile strikes?

Part of Raisi’s visit appeared to be an attempt to gain Islamabad’s support for its reprisal attack against Israel and demonstrate business as usual in Tehran’s foreign policy and its relations with regional countries.

However, Pakistan has internal and external limitations, together with grave economic problems, and cannot simply commit foreign policy and political support without a cost. Islamabad’s priorities concerning its ties with Iran are the economy first, and then border insecurity and terrorist groups.

“This visit underscores Iran's readiness for economic engagement and collaborative opportunities, reaffirming resilience in Iran-Pakistan relations,” Arhama Siddiqa, a research fellow at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI), told The New Arab. However, she does not consider regional dynamics as unrelated to the trip.

“The visit also serves as a diplomatic response to recent events, highlighting Iran's stance on de-escalation and regional stability, as evidenced by Pakistan's foreign office statements,” she asserted.

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In a joint statement issued on 24 April, for example, Iran and Pakistan called on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to take action against Israel, saying it had “illegally” targeted neighbouring countries and foreign diplomatic facilities.

Some had also speculated whether Pakistani authorities would relay a message to Iran from the US or Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries to reduce regional tensions, with third-party countries often mediating between Washington and Tehran.

The US and Pakistan, however, have strained relations at the moment, with deep differences over the fight against terrorism, historical animosity following the US operation to kill Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, and the fact that Pakistan is at the centre of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

“Regarding the messages of the US and GCC, considering US unhappiness over the MoUs signed between the two countries, the probability of such messages is unlikely,” Syed Fraz Hussain Naqvi, the Head of the Iran Program at the Institute of Regional Studies Islamabad, told TNA.

Cross-border military strikes in January severely damaged diplomatic relations. [Getty]

The same could also be said of Gulf countries, for whom Pakistan’s importance has gradually decreased.

“Especially after Pakistan's non-participation in the Saudi coalition against Yemen and not taking sides in the Qatar crisis (in favour of Saudi),” Javad Heirannia, Director of Persian Gulf Studies at the Centre for Scientific Research and Middle East Strategic Studies, told TNA.

Pakistan’s geopolitical importance to Arab Gulf countries largely depends on its position in China’s strategy for the Gulf region and Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative, according to Heirannia.

Gulf states, like the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia, have also been “expanding relations with India in formats such as I2U2 or the IMEC Corridor”, the analyst added, reducing any mediation role for Pakistan between Iran, and the US and Gulf powers.

"This visit underscores Iran's readiness for economic engagement and collaborative opportunities, reaffirming resilience in Iran-Pakistan relations"

Iran and Pakistan's economic ties

In addition to diplomacy, economic and security considerations were key elements of Raisi’s trip, with both countries agreeing to boost bilateral trade to $10 billion within the next five years, up from $2 billion.

Informal trade in liquified petroleum gas (LPG) and crude oil is significant between both countries, and Iran supplies electricity to the Baluchistan province and other border regions of Pakistan.

The gas pipeline project, however, is the pinnacle of energy trade between the two countries.

Signed in 2010, the pipeline was planned to supply between 750 million and one billion cubic feet per day of natural gas for 25 years to Pakistan from Iran's South Pars gas field, meeting the South Asian country’s growing energy needs.

Put on hold due to the threat of US sanctions on Iran, Pakistani officials said during Raisi’s visit that cooperation in the energy sector with Tehran would include the pipeline project.

This led to a swift response from the US, who warned again against the risk of sanctions. Pakistan, however, could face Iranian legal action resulting in fines of up to $18 bln for not holding up its part of the agreement.

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Security and terrorism

Terrorism has been at the centre of tensions in bilateral ties, with both countries accusing each other of failing to curb armed groups.

Jaish al-Adl (Army of Justice), formerly known as Jundallah (Soldiers of God), are a Sunni and ethnic Baloch group believed to be operating out of Pakistan.

In April, the group launched simultaneous attacks in the Iranian cities of Rask and Chabahar in the Sistan and Baluchistan Province, which led to clashes that continued for 17 hours with Iranian security forces. More than 28 people were killed.

Months earlier, in December, the group had killed 11 members of the Iranian security forces at a police station in Rask.

Iran then launched an unprecedented missile attack on Jaish al-Adl bases in Pakistan in January, having long seen the group as a threat. Two days later Pakistan retaliated, targeting the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) and the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF), which Islamabad sees as a menace to its national security.

Raisi's visit generated goodwill in Pakistan towards Iran, reflecting its soft power influence. [Getty]

Raisi's visit hoped to de-escalate the bilateral tensions caused by these attacks and counter-attacks. Some analysts also believe the trip was a response to domestic pressure after Islamabad's immediate response called into question Iran's deterrence power.

"[Iran's] aggressive military actions indeed provoked significant responses [from Pakistan], thus undermining the very essence of deterrence, which is to prevent military engagement by showcasing overwhelming retaliatory capabilities,” Mohammad Mazhari, a political scientist who served as editor-in-chief of the Arabic Mehr News Agency from 2013-2020 told TNA.

While intended to demonstrate strength, Iran’s actions inadvertently exposed limitations in its strategic calculations, the analyst added, especially in underestimating Pakistan’s willingness to react promptly. In addition, the attack tarnished the image of Iran in Pakistan, with Raisi’s visit hoping to reshape perceptions.

“Raisi’s visit to Pakistan generated much public support for Iran in Pakistan and reflected its soft power within the country,” analyst Syed Fraz Hussain Naqvi said.

Furthermore, Iran’s efforts to consolidate a ‘neighbourhood policy’ and its ‘look east’ strategy began in earnest during Raisi’s administration.

His Pakistan trip, despite the immediate geopolitical context, sought to strengthen these objectives and continue providing a way out from US sanctions.

Dr Mohammad Salami holds a PhD in International Relations. He is a specialist in Middle Eastern policy, particularly in Syria, Iran, Yemen, and the Persian Gulf region. His areas of expertise include politics and governance, security, and counterterrorism.

Follow him on Twitter: @moh_salami