Leaders of Iran and Pakistan jointly inaugurated a marketplace and a power transmission line along their shared border Thursday in a significant move aimed at boosting regional trade and energy cooperation.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif addressed a ceremony in a live broadcast from the Iranian side of the more than the 900-kilometer border between the two countries.
Raisi said the project had set the stage for Tehran and Islamabad to expand their economic and energy exchanges.
The transmission line would export 100 megawatts of Iranian electricity to Pakistan's border province of Baluchistan. The impoverished, natural resources-rich region already imports 100 megawatts of low-cost power from Iran.
"We are fully prepared to further deepen our relations with our neighboring country Pakistan in the energy sector," the Iranian president said.
Islamabad's foreign exchange reserves have rapidly declined as the country faces a dire economic crisis. The cash-strapped South Asian nation of about 230 million people depends on energy imports to meet domestic needs.
The marketplace opened by the two countries Thursday links Iran's southeastern city of Pishin to Pakistan's southwestern city of Mand. It is one of the six border markets the two counties are jointly constructing.
Raisi said the facilities would help create jobs and boost bilateral "retail trade" to help thousands of households on both sides of the remote, poverty-stricken regions.
"The message of this project is one of security. … Today, both countries see the border as an opportunity and not a threat," the Iranian leader stressed, speaking through an official interpreter.
Sharif said that he had held a formal meeting with Raisi on the sidelines of the inauguration and the two discussed ways to strengthen border security cooperation.
"We have exchanged proposals to make our joint border security mechanism more coherent and robust," the Pakistani prime minister said.
"I will convene an urgent meeting as soon as I return to Pakistan and we will take appropriate, effective steps in the light of your proposals," Sharif told Raisi without elaborating.
Insurgent attacks in sparsely populated Baluchistan and deadly violence carried out by Sunni militants in the adjacent Sistan-Baluchistan province of Shi'ite Iran have long been a source of bilateral tensions.
Both countries have blamed the other for not doing enough to prevent cross-border militant attacks.
Iran and Pakistan signed an agreement in 1990 to construct a nearly 2,700-kilometer gas pipeline to export Iranian gas to the energy-deficient South Asian neighboring country. But U.S. sanctions on Tehran blocked any progress of the project.
Iranian officials maintain they have finished construction of the pipeline on their side of the border and are waiting for Pakistan to complete its part, saying a lack of progress by next year would entitle Tehran to demand financial penalties.
Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mumtaz Zahra Baloch reiterated Thursday her country remains committed to the pipeline project.
"Pakistan considers the Iran-Pakistan pipeline as an important project that symbolizes the friendship between Pakistan and our neighbor, Iran," Baloch told a news conference in Islamabad when asked to comment on the reported multibillion-dollar penalty facing her country.
She said talks with Iranian officials on "some issues" about the pipeline's completion continued, adding that "it is premature for me to comment on anything that could happen several months from now."