Iran-Pakistan Relations: Balancing Geopolitical Realities

What is behind Ebrahim Raisi’s most recent visit to Pakistan? 

Iran and Pakistan had a challenging start to the year as their relations were strained by a significant cross-border incident. On January 16, Iran launched a missile strike targeting two Jaish al-Adl bases in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province. Pakistan retaliated two days later with drone, rocket, and missile strikes against the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) and the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) in Saravan, Iran. Iran downplayed Pakistan’s response, emphasizing that the seven casualties “were not Iranian nationals.” Despite this, both countries swiftly took diplomatic steps to de-escalate tensions.

These strikes occurred during ongoing diplomatic and military collaboration, including joint naval drills and high-level meetings in Davos, highlighting the fragility of their relationship. Both countries showed restraint by recalling but not severing diplomatic ties, and ambassadors resumed their posts by January 26. Iran’s Foreign Minister visited Pakistan on January 29, reaffirming the commitment to dialogue over further military escalation.

Despite the heightened tension at the beginning, both sides emphasized that their strikes targeted militant groups rather than each other’s armed forces. However, Pakistan’s official and social media highlighted the negative impact of Iran’s initial strike, emphasizing the deaths of two children and injuries to three girls. In this context, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s visit to Pakistan, which took place from April 22 to 24 at the invitation of President Asif Ali Zardari, aimed to mend ties and reduce the impact of recent hostilities. During the three-day visit, Iran and Pakistan signed eight agreements and memorandums of understanding (MoUs) to bolster their security and economic collaboration, committing to raise bilateral trade to $10 billion in the coming years. This diplomatic engagement was a concerted effort to calm tensions and reaffirm their shared commitment to cooperation, emphasizing dialogue and mutual progress over further military confrontation.

Iran and Pakistan are not just neighbors; their relationship is strengthened through their active participation in various international and regional organizations. These include the United Nations (UN), Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), D-8 Organization for Economic Cooperation, Asia Cooperation Dialogue (ACD), initiatives like the Conference of the Parliament Speakers of Six Regional Countries, the Meeting of the Security Council Secretaries of the SCO Member States, and the Meeting of Foreign Ministers of Afghanistan’s Neighboring Countries. 

China and Russia, as leading members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, wield significant influence over Iran and Pakistan. They share a vested interest in preventing any escalation of tensions between these neighboring countries. Although the SCO may have limited power to resolve disputes between member states, Beijing’s influence in Tehran and Islamabad could position China as an effective mediator if conflict between Iran and Pakistan threatens to escalate. This engagement, particularly China’s strong diplomatic ties with both countries, underscores a strategic partnership that aims to maintain regional stability and foster cooperation between these key players. 

Security Factor

Security remains an essential aspect of Iran-Pakistan relations, with both sides prioritizing mutual trust. However, the cross-border incident in January still lingers, impacting the trust between the two nations and casting a shadow over their long-term cooperation. 

During his visit to Pakistan, President Ebrahim Raisi emphasized Tehran’s willingness to cooperate in combating terrorism, which had previously strained ties after the January cross-border airstrikes. Both President Raisi and Prime Minister Nawaz reaffirmed their commitment to deepening people-to-people connections and agreed that their shared border should symbolize “peace and friendship,” underscoring the necessity of consistent political, military, and security dialogue to address issues like terrorism, narcotics smuggling, human trafficking, hostage-taking, money laundering, and abduction.


Since the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s subsequent takeover, regional nations have sought to address their concerns either through multilateral negotiations or bilateral talks. Iran and Pakistan, in particular, have significant worries about the Taliban’s influence. Although Pakistan initially hoped to leverage its historical ties to the Taliban, the group has provided refuge for Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), posing a direct challenge to Islamabad. Any nationalist conflict between Pakistani Pashtuns and Islamabad could find support among Afghan Pashtuns and the Taliban. On the other hand, Iran’s relationship with the Taliban is fraught with underlying tensions, which could ignite at any moment, threatening regional stability. 

It is worth noting that while Iran and Pakistan share mutual concerns, their political approaches differ. At the second meeting of special representatives on Afghanistan affairs, attended by delegates from Iran, China, Russia, Pakistan, the United States, and the European Union in Doha in February, Pakistan officially distanced itself from Russia and Iran’s positions. On the sidelines of the meeting, the Pakistani delegation agreed with the U.S., EU, and China representatives to establish a separate contact group and appoint a joint special representative.

Iran and Pakistan expressed satisfaction with their close cooperation in the SCO and called for an early resumption of the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group’s activities to coordinate regional stability and economic development. Both sides reaffirmed their commitment to fostering Afghanistan’s growth as a sovereign state free of terrorism and drug trafficking, expressing their intent to strengthen counter-terrorism cooperation and present a unified front against security threats from Afghanistan.


Both Iran and Pakistan also emphasized the importance of resolving the Kashmir conflict through dialogue and peaceful means, guided by the will of the Kashmiri people and international law. Iran has historically faced challenges in formulating its Kashmir policy due to its ties with both India and Pakistan. Following the outbreak of violence in Jammu and Kashmir in 1989, Iran’s top leadership chose to avoid taking sides, focusing instead on condemning human rights abuses rather than advocating for a specific political solution.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, clarified Iran’s position on several occasions, criticizing India’s alleged human rights violations in Kashmir while refraining from endorsing a particular political solution, such as implementing the United Nations Security Council resolution that Pakistan advocates for. Iran’s leadership, since President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, has always maintained a cautious stance, balancing Iran’s significant economic interests in India with its revolutionary ideals.

Despite ups and downs in relations with both India and Pakistan, Iran has historically managed to prevent the Kashmir issue from negatively affecting its ties with either country. This delicate balancing act underscores Iran’s careful diplomatic approach, considering its strategic interests and ideological commitments in the region.

Economic and Energy Cooperation

Economic and energy cooperation between Iran and Pakistan predominantly involves truck traffic at the border terminals in Sistan and Baluchistan, primarily through the Taftan crossing. Roughly 100 types of goods are exported daily from Iran via this border, with a flow of 600 to 700 trucks through the Mirjaveh crossing. 

Three border points—Rimdan, Mirjaveh, and Pishin—facilitate commerce, with Rimdan being the newest station, established during President Hassan Rouhani’s administration in 2020. Currently, road travel through the Mirjaveh and Rimdan borders is the most cost-effective route between the two countries. However, the absence of direct flights necessitates transit through Dubai, Qatar, or Turkey, indicating a lack of direct connectivity between Iran and Pakistan.

Official trade between the two countries stands at roughly $2 billion, with Iran exporting about $1.7 billion worth of goods to Pakistan and importing $300 million worth from Pakistan. However, informal trade, often in the form of smuggling fuel from Iran to Pakistan, is estimated at around $2.5 billion. Subsidized gasoline and oil are transported from Iran’s eastern border to Pakistan, where they’re sold at significantly higher prices. Smuggling remains a critical economic lifeline for many in the region despite the inherent risks due to dangerous routes and the threat of security force intervention.

Both Iran and Pakistan have agreed to expand economic cooperation and transform their shared border into a “border of prosperity” through joint economic projects such as border markets, economic free zones, and new border crossings. They also reaffirmed their intent to collaborate in energy trade, including electricity and power transmission lines, and in implementing the Iran-Pakistan Gas Pipeline Project.

Despite mutual commitment to the gas pipeline project, doubts linger over its feasibility. Pakistan currently sources much of its energy needs from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with additional supplies from its domestic production and the Baluchistan region. Although agreements exist with Turkmenistan to supply gas and with Tajikistan for electricity, neither has been fully realized. Pakistan faces routine power shortages due to its rapidly growing population and rising energy demands.

Iran remains the most economical and efficient source of energy. Tehran has already extended the pipeline to Pakistan’s border, but geopolitical factors complicate the project’s completion. The strategic interests of third parties, particularly the United States and Saudi Arabia, could interfere with Islamabad’s plans. Pakistan’s military relies heavily on U.S. support, and the economy is closely tied to Saudi Arabia. As a result, Pakistan remains wary of jeopardizing its ties with the U.S. and Saudi Arabia over the gas pipeline.

As participants in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), Iran and Pakistan have expressed a strong commitment to improving connectivity and infrastructure and enhancing energy sector collaboration. Both nations also agreed to deepen cooperation between the sister ports of Gwadar and Chahbahar, sharing the view that collaboration between the SCO and ECO can accelerate regional development and progress.

Iran’s Soft Power

Ebrahim Raisi’s visit to Pakistan in April 2024 was demonstrated by some media in Iran as Tehran’s influence in the region and its soft power. Accompanied by a high-ranking delegation of cultural, economic, and political officials, Raisi’s trip emphasized Iran’s commitment to cultural cooperation with its neighbors. The visit yielded eight agreements, including a memorandum on joint film production. 

As a Muslim-majority nation with a significant Shia population, Pakistan maintains deep cultural links to Iran. Iran has supported the expansion of Shia madrasas across Pakistan, fostering more significant religious and educational ties. These bonds have strengthened through the annual Arbaeen pilgrimage to Karbala, where hundreds of thousands of Pakistani Shias travel through Iran each year. The Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad sees the annual attendance of over half a million Pakistani Shias. Therefore, Astan-e Qods (the administrative organization that manages the Imam Reza shrine) hosts pilgrimage programs specifically for Urdu-speaking Pakistanis.

Iran has further extended its influence via the al-Mostafa International University, a network of educational institutions promoting Shia doctrine. This initiative is central to Iran’s educational diplomacy and aims to foster more significantinfluence in the politics of the Muslim world.

Iran’s recruitment of Pakistani Shias for the Zeynabiyoun Brigade, named after the Sayyida Zeynab shrine in Syria, underscores Tehran’s influence. Originally established to protect the shrine, the brigade leverages an existing network supported by the Quds Force since the early 2000s and was formally organized in 2014. However, the group’s activities have drawn scrutiny, and in January 2019, the U.S. Treasury added the Zeynabiyoun Brigade to its financial blacklist.

In response, Pakistani authorities have arrested several militants linked to the brigade, particularly in Karachi, a major recruitment hub, as well as in Parachinar, Quetta, and Gilgit Baltistan. The National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) updated its list of banned organizations, placing the Iran-backed group in the 79th position. Pakistan’s designation of the Zeynabiyoun Brigade as a militant outfit, occurring shortly before President Ebrahim Raisi’s visit, signals Pakistan’s clear redlines and reveals Iran’s limitations in influencing regional security dynamics.

In the context of the war in Gaza and Tehran’s stance, Iran and Pakistan have voiced their solidarity on various regional issues. They jointly condemned Israel’s attacks on Gaza, called for an immediate ceasefire, demanded unimpeded humanitarian access, and insisted on holding Israel accountable. Both nations also condemned the attack on the Iranian Embassy’s Consular Section in Damascus, emphasizing that it violated international law and Syria’s sovereignty. This also illustrates Tehran’s efforts to cultivate its pro-Palestinian political agenda in its foreign policy, particularly amid the recent tensions between Iran and Israel. Indeed, Iran’s reputation among Pakistanis has been bolstered following its drone and missile strikes on Israel. Many in Pakistan, regardless of being Sunni or Shia, have traditionally viewed Iran and its leadership as a symbol of resistance against American influence. This perception has only strengthened after Iran’s military action against Israel, reinforcing its image as a leading force challenging Western dominance in the region.

Final Remarks

Iran and Pakistan’s relationship is shaped by their geopolitical realities, border security needs, and concerns over territorial integrity. While the January cross-border military tensions momentarily strained diplomatic relations, both nations swiftly moved to mend ties through high-level visits and agreements aimed at boosting security and economic collaboration. Further, Iran’s soft power is evident in its cultural, religious, and educational influence over Pakistan, particularly through the shared Shia identity and the expansion of institutions like the al-Mostafa International University. 

Overall, Iran’s approach to its relationship with Pakistan reflects a mix of pragmatism and ideology, balancing geopolitical realities faced by both sides. As economic ties continue to grow, Iran remains committed to fostering deeper civilizational and cultural connections with Pakistan.Despite the myriad challenges, Tehran’s efforts to strengthen its partnership with Pakistan is a dynamic worth observing closely in the future. The key question is whether Iran’s “Look East” and “Good Neighbour” policies can be transformed into a comprehensive strategy that adapts to evolving regional dynamics. If not, these bilateral relations risk remaining overshadowed and bypassed by other