A Pakistan Navy frigate docks at Port Sudan, in the Red Sea, in 2012. Pakistan and Iranian ships have conducted joint naval exercises this week. (Ashraf Shazly/Agence France-Presse)
ISLAMABAD — The Pakistani and Iranian navies have engaged in a four-day joint naval exercise east of the Straits of Hormuz this week in an effort to improve security cooperation between the two neighbors.
The participating Pakistani warships, which arrived in Bandar Abbas on March 5, include the Agosta-70 class submarine Hashmat and the indigenously constructed missile boat Quwwat. They were returning from participating in the Doha International Maritime Defence Exhibition, which was held in Qatar.
Senior officers of both navies also met in the port of Bandar Abbas during the visit.
The Iranian vessels participating are not known, but its exercise with Pakistan follows a similar exercise held with the Omani Navy on Monday.
Iran is also increasing its naval presence closer to Pakistan with the announcement in February that it would build a new base in the Gwatr Gulf, close to the border with Pakistan.
A spokesman for the Pakistan Navy here, Commodore Irfan Ul Haque, said the presence of the Pakistani ships near Iran was part of a “normal visit” at the end of which a passage exercise would be conducted.
Analysts agree, but are unconvinced the Iranian-Pakistan naval relationship will be expanded much beyond the current level.
“These are just routine exercises and good for trust building and not much else,” says analyst Usman Shabbir of the Pakistan Military Consortium think tank.
However, when placed in the context of wider Iranian and Pakistani efforts to improve security cooperation, the exercises become somewhat more important.
“These exercises are of course necessary to build better relations, and now are even more important considering the cross-border attacks by rebels in Baluchistan,” Shabbir added.
Iran-Pakistan relations have been strained over recent months mainly, but not entirely, due to the poor security situation along their mutual border. Iran has accused Pakistan of not doing enough to secure it against smugglers and militants that have attacked Iranian security personnel.
The most recent incident saw five Iranian border guards abducted by the Jaishul Adl militant group in February. One was executed last month, and the four survivors released last Friday, reportedly swapped for eight Jaishul Adl members being held in Zahedan jail in Iran. Tehran claims the guards had been held captive in Pakistan, something denied by Islamabad.
Iranian legislators, however, approved a bill to improve security between Iran and Pakistan. Among other things, the bill deals with setting out areas of cooperation, delegating responsibilities to various ministries and financial issues.
This follows the signing of a bilateral counterterrorism security pact in February 2013 that involved agreements to counter drug smuggling, human trafficking and terrorism.
Though admitting she is unfamiliar with the “fine print,” Salma Malik, assistant professor at the Department of Defence & Strategic Studies, in Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, said the pact “is a very good development, which was badly needed.”
“Iran is an extremely important neighbor and one time very good friend. Now the terms of endearment have converted into confrontation, and with US and Saudi Arabia as major stakeholders,” she added.
Due to the influence of Saudi Arabia and the US in Pakistan, she is uncertain just how deep this bilateral Iran-Pakistan security cooperation can become. However, she highlights that Pakistan desperately needs domestic and regional stability, and Iran is a part of ensuring this.
“Pakistan wants to have a stable, peaceful and strong domestic set up. We have to have a pragmatic, realistic and solid building of relations with our immediate neighbors, of which Iran is an extremely important cornerstone” she says. ■