Iranian President Hassan Rouhani took part the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO)’s 13th plenary session held last week in Pakistan’s capital Islamabad.
While a number of observers have declared that ECO has lost its raison d’etre, failing to realize its ideals of economic cooperation among its ten members, Iran still views the organization as a promising platform. On Wednesday, Hassan Rouhani told a gathering of ECO leaders that with a global economy shift toward Central Asia in the second half of the century, the organization would once again serve as the key for engagement between the West and the Orient, Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported.
Iranian subcontinent expert Pirmohammad Mollazehi is not optimistic. “The truth is that ECO is among regional organizations that have proven to be inefficient, particularly in comparison with other regional organizations such as ASEAN,” he told Iranian Diplomacy in an interview conducted on Saturday. The main reason, he said, was that the economic structures in the ECO countries are ‘homologous’, which means the members cannot fulfill each other’s needs by their products. “The only thing in-between is the oil and gas Iran can supposedly export to other countries,” he added. According to Mollazehi, homologous products have led to a situation where a larger part of ECO trade is not taking place inside the organization.
In order for the organization to achieve its goal, Mollazehi said, two significant steps must be taken. “First, a realistic assessment is needed on the unrecognized or unrealized capabilities that already exist for the expansion of economic cooperation as well as a political resolve to put these capabilities to optimal use,” he said. He went on to say that Central Asian members should adopt Iran as the main axis. “Afghanistan and Central Asia are surrounded in land, and in dire need of connection to the ocean and international waters, he said. “The best way to do so is through agreements like the one reached among Iran, Afghanistan, and India for the development of Chabahar port, including construction of a railroad and a highway from Chabahar to Milak, which extends into Afghanistan, in order to pave the way for imports and exports from and to Afghanistan and Central Asia,” he added. Calling Central Asia an “untouched” region, the expert said almost all powers from the US to the Europe to China and India are positive about investment and expansion of trades in the region.
Commenting on Sartaj Aziz’s remarks that a focus of the ECO summit was connectivity and more so, the China-Pakistan economic corridor, Mollazehi elaborated on the dynamics of rivalry in the region. “One attitude is that the Gwadar port, upon which the Chinese are making investments, and the Chabahar port, in which the Indians are making investments, are rivals,” Mollazehi explained. However, he said the two ports could well be seen as partners, too. Noting China’s billion dollar investments is Pakistan and Afghanistan and its long-term plans for a potential military presence in the region, Mollazehi argued that China might be willing to invest in Chabahar as well, in order to connect the facilities they are making in Gwadar, with Chabahar. The two ports, Gwadar and Chabahar, which are quite close to each other, provide a common ground, according to Mollazehi. “People in the region share a common language, culture, religion, and history. Seen in this light, the existing attitude can turn into one of partnership, rather than rivalry,” he reiterated. Referring to China’s interest in financing Pakistan to complete the Peace (gas) pipeline, he said the Chinese would expect to reach an agreement with Iran to spread the pipeline up to Kashgar in the next phase, in order to secure a reliable source of energy, as Iran’s gas could supply for them in the next four or five centuries.
Before his departure for Islamabad, President Rouhani addressed a gathering of people in the Iranian province of Sistan and Baluchistan, saying strong ties with Pakistan could boost the development of the province. “The development of the Iranian province of Sistan and Baluchistan depends on an effective cooperation between Iran and Pakistan, because developments in Pakistani Baluchistan have direct impact on developments in the Iranian province, and vice versa,” Mollazehi told Iranian Diplomacy.
Mollazehi stressed that the main barrier to development in this province is that of security and Pakistan is largely to blame for the lack thereof. “It is either Pakistan does not have the power to control the borders or it fails to see it as a priority. Their border priority seems to be in Kashmir with India and Durand with Afghanistan. It has no interest to assign forces to protect its almost 960km border with Iran, which stretches over a vulnerable desert area, with few important mountains,” he added. As long as there is no security, Mollazehi said no private-sector investor shows interest in order to risk its capital. “There should be incentives for private investors to get involved and it is up to the government to provide such incentives,” he said.