Two days after President Hassan Rouhani arrived in Pakistan on a state visit, Pakistani authorities arrested an alleged spy for India in Pakistan’s restive border province of Balochistan.
Kulbhushan Yadav allegedly confessed to illegally entering Pakistan from Iran with a genuine Indian passport and a valid Iranian visa. Balochistan’s chief minister asserted that “Indian intelligence has been involved in destabilizing our country using Balochistan’s soil and by luring Baloch fighters and fueling sectarian violence.”
According to some Pakistani media, Yadav was promoted to commander in the Indian Navy in 2003. He then obtained a passport with a Muslim name and landed in the Iranian port of Chabahar near the Pakistan-Iran border. India dismissed the charges of espionage and called it “baseless.”
This is hardly the first time Pakistan and India have engaged in a dispute over espionage but the link to Iran is unusual.
Pakistani media reported that Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif had discussed the issue with President Rouhani. Inter-Services Public Relations Director General Asim Saleem Bajwa tweeted an excerpt of what General Sharif supposedly told the Iranian President: “There is one concern that RAW [India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing] is involved in Pakistan, especially in Balochistan, and sometimes it also uses the soil of our brother country Iran.”
During a press conference on March 26, President Rouhani rejected the claims of having discussed the issue with the Pakistani leadership. While dismissing that there was any talk of Indian espionage activities in Balochistan, President Rouhani, according to the Iranian government’s official website, went on to say that “Such rumors surface whenever Iran and Pakistan are getting closer.”
The alleged Iran-India espionage ties overshadowed an important trip for President Rouhani, who is seeking to profit from sanctions relief afforded by the recent nuclear deal to expand Iran’s economic links especially with neighboring nations. A spokesman for Iran’s embassy in Pakistan, Abbas Badrifar, described media treatment of the topic and President Rouhani’s denial as “undignified and sometimes offensive.”
Arab media covered the case with broad interest, all assuming that the allegations of espionage were true. One article was titled“An Indian man confessed spying for Iran against Pakistan.” Others spoke of Iran’s unsuccessful attempt to bond with Pakistan.
The Pakistani government warned the media not to link Iran with the espionage case and stated that such reports could have”negative implications” for Iran-Pakistan ties. Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan expressed concern that Iran was portrayed in Pakistani media as if “Iran is not a friendly and brotherly country.” He said Iran has no link to what he described as an “Indian intelligence network,” emphasized Pakistan-Iran religious, social, cultural and political bonds, and added that “nothing can come in way of our relations.”
Iranian hardliners were not so supportive. Fars News Agency ran an analysis from Natural Gas Europe describing Rouhani’s trip as “fruitless” and blamed President Rouhani for not mentioning Iran’s ability to supply Pakistan’s energy needs and not even being able to sign a “vague memorandum of understanding” as he did during an earlier trip to Europe. Conservative Tasnimmentioned a “lack of serious talks” about Iran’s gas exports to Pakistan.
Little was reflected in the media on the most important exchanges between leaders, such as Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s statement that “Pakistan’s economy has suffered due to imposed sanctions on Iran” and the need for enhancing bilateral “cooperation on energy.”
The key question is whether RAW’s alleged use of Iranian soil for its activities came up in the meeting between General Sharif and President Rouhani. If so, was it supposed to be secret? If it was secret, why did General Sharif publicize it? If it wasn’t secret, why did the Iranian President deny it?
Reviewing the segment of the interview where President Rouhani allegedly denies having talked with General Sharif over this issue clearly shows misunderstanding through mistranslation.
A reporter from the Dawn newspaper asks a question which is subsequently translated into Farsi by an Iranian translator. “Mr. President, among the many impediments to developing ties between Pakistan and Iran, one is the suspicions on the part of Pakistan about India…close ties between Iran and India. And our Army Chief General Raheel Sharif this morning raised the issue of the India Intelligence Agency, RAW, using Iranian soil to launch subversive activities against Pakistan. How can your government help alleviate those concerns in Pakistan?”
The translator, however, said this in Farsi:
“Thank you, Mr. President. These days, rumors are being heard on the ties between Iran and India and that actions on Iranian soil are being conducted against Pakistan. This morning Mr. Raheel Sharif in his meeting with you raised some issues in this regard. What kind of measures has Islamic Republic government taken to address this issue?”
President Rouhani replied:
“As you know whenever we get closer to Pakistan and our relationship improves, there are some who spread such rumors. This is not new [to us] anymore. I have [heard] this rumor more than 20 times when our relations with Pakistan get friendly. I have not talked with Mr. Raheel Sharif on this issue. Our talks were meant to develop our relations. We have very good, sincere and brotherly relations with Pakistan. Of course we also have good relations with India. So there is no problem. We spoke with the Pakistani government about the region…[and different countries…] We both agreed that the only solution to resolving the issues in the region, is political solution and negotiations. We believe that the BARJAM ([Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action]’s model can be effective everywhere and can resolve issues…as we were able to resolve our nuclear issue with 5+1 through negotiations.”
Had it not been for this mistranslation, President Rouhani would probably have responded by saying that Iran would fully cooperate with the Pakistani government to clarify the case. He may not have said that he did not discuss the issue with General Sharif. Instead, he would have, as Iran’s ambassador to Pakistan did, promised his country’s full cooperation with Pakistan on arresting spies and on all security issues.
President Rouhani’s landmark trip to Pakistan — his first since becoming president and the first by an Iranian head of state in fourteen years — came during a time when Pakistan is under enormous pressure from Saudi Arabia and other Arab allies to join an anti-Iran coalition. However, it lost much of its significance due to the negative publicity generated by the spy issue.
Fatemeh Aman is an expert on the Middle East and South Asia. She has worked as a journalist, media and political analyst, and has written widely in English and Persian on Iran, and South Asia. She is a frequent contributor to Jane’s publications, including Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst and Jane’s Intelligence Review, and appears often on Persian and English-speaking media outlets. She is the co-author of Atlantic Council’s report “Iran, Afghanistan, and South Asia: Resolving Regional Sources of Instability.”