Islamic Republic of Iran’s Consul General in Quetta
Hassan Darvishvand, an experienced and veteran diplomat in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran, has recently started his mission as the new consul general of Iran in Quetta. He has served in various positions in the Iranian foreign ministry since 1993 and he has been repeatedly appreciated and praised by his senior state officials on providing worthy and professional services. Darvishvand was appointed in 2011 as the consul general of Iran in Peshawar and served in this position for three and a half years. During this period, he succeeded in expanding ties between his country and the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) significantly. He was repeatedly praised by Pakistani and Iranian officials and received a plaque of appreciation and a medal of service by the business community, political officials and specifically by the KP governor. In this detailed interview, the consul general discusses various aspects of the relationship between the two brotherly nations.
Q. Pakistan has been complaining about terrorists using Iranian soil to launch attacks on its territory. There are several examples, such as the Ormara attack in October 2020 in which 13 security personnel were killed, or the recent attack in Punjgur in which four personnel of the Frontier Corps (FC) were killed. What action has Iran taken against such elements?
Hassan Darvishvand (HD): We are good friends, and there are always some big and small devils that are bent upon creating misunderstandings between us. They have some hidden and some open designs.
We categorically reject the impression that these elements are using Iranian soil against a friendly country. We are investigating these issues, and also offer Pakistan to set up a joint investigation into such incidents. These elements time their attacks in accordance with important engagements taking place between the two countries. For example, one terrorist attack was carried out when an Iranian trade expo was being held. The recent attack was conducted when the 10th border trade meeting between Pakistan and Iran was in progress.
The important factor here is that our enemy intends to manipulate public opinion by creating an impression that the two countries are not true friends. It is our collective responsibility, and also that of the media, to properly inform the public. Our common enemy weaves nefarious designs to cause our public opinion to turn against our friendship and mutual interests. Iranian Ambassador, Syed Mohammad Ali Hosseini, strongly condemned the Punjgur attack and assured that it will be investigated. Also, Iran did not blame Pakistan when four Iranian security personnel were killed in a similar terror attack in the border region.
Q. What would be your response to Pakistani complaints that Baloch separatists also have camps on Iranian soil?
HD: We always treat Pakistan as a true friend, and we are confident that there are no such camps on our soil. However, if Pakistani friends have any knowledge about the whereabouts of these camps, they should share it with us and we will take immediate action.
Q. There have been recent reports that over 200 protesters have been killed by Iranian forces in the Zahedan area of Iranian Balochistan. What is going on there?
HD: In fact, some terrorists who had mixed with the worshippers at a mosque during the Friday congregation opened fire on security forces and a police station. Their plan appeared to be to instigate return fire from the forces that would hit the worshippers. But they failed. Iranian forces retaliated by targeting the miscreants, and killed all of them. Some innocent people were also killed in the crossfire, but the damage was far less than the terrorists had desired. The situation is under control now, and normal life has been restored.
Q. Can you elaborate your recent press statement that Iran wishes to join the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)?
HD: Our policy is clear, that instead of confining the CPEC to Gwadar, it should be extended to other countries through Iran. That was the reason why Iran had suggested linking Chahbahar with Gwadar. CPEC-related projects need energy, and Iran has been offering to meet this need. The benefits of CPEC cannot be denied. It is in the best interests of both Iran and Pakistan, as well as of the wider region.
Q. What visa facilities do you have for Pakistani visitors to Iran?
HD: We have three categories, namely tourism, trade and pilgrimage. To avoid inconvenience to public, the applicants can now apply online, while travel agents can submit applications at our consulates. These applications are processed and visas issued within two to three days. Those who are issued a one-year visa can stay in Iran for two months, those issued a six-month visa may stay there for 45 days while those with a three-month visa are allowed to stay for one month.
Q. Can you tell me about the current trade activities between Pakistan and Iran?
Hassan Darvishvand: There are three functional trading points on the Iran-Pakistan border. Over the years, frequent high level meetings have been held at different levels between the two countries to improve trade as well as political understanding. Recently, foreign ministers of the two countries – Bilawal Bhutto of Pakistan and Hossein Amir-Abdollahian of Iran – met on the sidelines of the Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO) conference to discuss matters of mutual interest.
Pakistan’s Balochistan province is central to Pak-Iran trade, given the long border it shares with Iran. Media also has an important role in highlighting the importance of border trade. Indeed, at times media can have a greater impact than diplomatic interactions. Both countries share many commonalities, like religion, culture and customs. In my opinion, our current trade volume falls short of its potential. It can be raised if attention is paid to improve infrastructure on both sides of the border.
Q. What is the current trade volume between the two countries?
HD: Trade is being carried out between the two countries on both official and non-official levels. Both countries share a long border that runs for 945 kilometers overland and 300 nautical miles in the sea. There are three border points – Taftan-Mir Jawa, Mund-Pishin and Gabd-Rimdan – where trade markets are functional. Iran has already built road and communications infrastructure to connect these points, but on the Pakistani side such developments are yet to take place.
Official trade volume between the two countries is worth around $ 1.5 billion, while unofficial trade may well be three times that amount. Given the brotherly ties between the two countries, a trade volume of $1.5 billion is far short of its true potential, and our aim is to stretch it up to at least $5 billion. Both countries should put more efforts in this regard.
Besides that, Iran is already providing 104MW electricity to the bordering areas of Makran division, which it plans to increase to 204MW from 1st March 2023 to help resolve the electricity shortages in that part of Balochistan. Pakistan is currently facing an acute energy crisis, and Iran has offered to extend cooperation in this regard. If Pakistan accepts this offer, it can revolutionise its energy sector.
Also, Iran has already built a 1,171-kilometer Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline up to the Pakistani border, and is now waiting for Pakistan to start work on extending it into its own area. We know that Pakistan is facing some problems in this regard, and media can play a role to overcome these problems.
Q. How many trade crossing points are there, and are there any plans to increase them?
HD: On paper, there are six points, five of which are fully functional while the sixth one is yet to be made functional. Apart from the three points that I have already mentioned, there two more points linking the Pakistani districts of Punjgoor and Mashkail (Shamsar). Iran and Pakistan have already agreed to increase the number of border trading points to nine. In this regard, all work on the Iranian side has already been completed, and we are now waiting for Pakistan to complete work on its side.
Q. Are there any hurdles in the implementation of your plans to improve rail and road links across the border?
HD: Negotiations have already been held on the Islamabad-Tehran-Istanbul project, and three trains have run this route on trial basis, but unfortunately these services had to be suspended due to recent floods in Pakistan.
Meanwhile, Iran has already started work on the 100-kilometer Taftan-Mir Jawa-Zahedan rail track to bring it up to the international standard. It will be completed within the next few months. But the 650-kilometer portion of the Taftan-Quetta rail track on Pakistani territory needs improvement.
Once Pakistan has done the improvements to these rail links on its side of the border, it will start having overland access to the Central Asian region and further onto Europe, including Russia. Iran has already linked its railway network with the Central Asian states through Sarakhs city bordering Turkmenistan, while work is in progress on another 170-kilometer track to link eastern Europe through Azerbaijan. To link all these regions located north and west of Iran to the Arabian Sea in the south, a rail track to connect Zahedan with the Iranian port city of Chahbahar is near completion. Pakistan can use this rail track to have access to the Central Asian states and Europe, including Russia, via the Zahedan junction.
In the south, Iran has been expressing its desire to link Chabahar to the nearby Pakistani port city of Gwadar through rail and road as well as a ferry service, so as to facilitate the movement of people on both sides and thereby improve trade. Iran has also offered technical cooperation to Pakistan to improve the 650-kilometer portion of the rail track between Quetta and Zahedan. As former army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, rightly said, we have to move from geo-political tiffs to geo-economic integration.
Q. There are some complaints from local traders concerning facilities in banking system both in Iran and Pakistan. Are you aware of this problem?
HD: Pakistan and Iran have agreements on barter trade and have laid down measures to improve it. If we implement those agreements in letter and spirit, the traders’ problems will be solved.
Q. What incentives can Iran offer to Pakistani traders, especially those from Balochistan, to improve trade in local products as well as people-to-people contact?
HD: Border markets on the Iranian side have been fully functional over the last many years, but Pakistan has not yet made them functional despite promises over the last two years. It doesn’t work that way, you know. It is a bilateral issue, not a unilateral one. Iran offers many items for export to Pakistan, such as steel, petrochemicals, cement, tiles and even dairy items, while Pakistan can export fresh fruits and rice into Iran.
As such, we made efforts to make three official border points fully functional, hoping that Pakistan would reciprocate. Pakistani traders bought land in the border town of Taftan and made huge investments to build border markets there. But it is yet to be officially inaugurated.
We are happy, though, that after a long time, Pakistan opened the Rahdari gate (passage for local people having travel permits to cross without passport and visa) at Taftan border. Under this facility, people hailing from the bordering areas on both sides can travel across with a 15-day stay permit. They can either travel to see their relatives across the border, or carry trade goods, or both. We think such steps can bring progress and prosperity to people living on both sides.
Negotiations between the two sides over free and preferential trade have already been completed and we are trying that both sides soon sign the relevant agreements.
Q. Iran helped Qatar when the latter faced hardships in the wake of international sanctions. Will it do the same for Pakistan which is currently facing economic crisis?
HD: It will be up to our Pakistani friends to say what they want from us. According to a 2022 report, Pakistan spends $27 billion annually on import of fuel and gas to meet its energy needs. Iran brought the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline right up to the Pakistani border ten years ago, spending billions of dollars on it. But the project has since been pending on the Pakistani side. Had Pakistan completed this project by laying the pipeline on its side of the border, it would not be facing energy shortages today. But our Pakistani friends gave in to the demands of some international powers opposing trade relation with Iran and put the project on hold. Iranian gas doesn’t come free, of course, but it does come on cheaper rates.
As a consequence of its overall policies, Pakistan is borrowing money from international financial institutions to run its economy. As such, it has to pay huge amounts of money as debt servicing charges that keep rising day by day and may evolve into a serious financial crisis in the medium to long run.
Instead, If Pakistan starts seeking cooperation from Iran, this may open for it new avenues of progress and prosperity. We have been hearing that our Pakistani brothers and sisters face serious problems due to gas shortages in winters and power shortages in summers. A proof of our good intentions towards Pakistan is that even though Pakistan violated the agreement on Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, we didn’t approach the International Court of Justice, which would have inflicted heavy fines on it, adding to its financial troubles.