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November 11, 2017

Pakistan’s Tehran overture


November 11, 2017

The government’s efforts to reinvigorate ties with neighbouring Iran are a welcome development. COAS General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s recent visit to Iran is particularly significant for two reasons.  First, it demonstrates a policy shift in Pakistan, even if it has been forced to, in the wake of yet another rude awakening of being at the receiving end of the US’ expedient policy and India’s aggressive regional diplomacy. This shows that a discernible, thoughtful revision of policy is underway instead of the usual inertia and weak protestations by the Foreign Office.

Second, in lieu of the rapidly shifting political dynamics in the Gulf, Pakistan could use its relations with Tehran to mediate between Saudi Arabia heading the Sunni GCC bloc and Shiite Iran. Pakistan would have to walk an extremely fine tightrope if the simmering tensions between Saudi Arabia with Iran were to explode in Lebanon. Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has openly accused Saudi of destabilising the government in Lebanon by pressuring Saad Hariri to resign. 

Riyadh’s call for immediate exit of all Saudi nationals from Lebanon in the wake of the recent developments and accusation of an ‘act of war’ by Iran for the missile attack has escalated the beating of the war drums.  It was not too long ago that Pakistan faced a conundrum when asked to send its troops to fight in Yemen. Thankfully, we did not do so.  But the Yemen conflict had strained relations between Islamabad, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi till guarantees were made of full cooperation in defending the Haram in the eventuality of any attack on Saudi soil.  Moreover, General Raheel Sharif’s appointment as head of the Islamic Military Alliance probably played a big role in defusing the tensions over Yemen.

Unfortunately, the choices made by our past leadership in abetting vested interests and short-term goals have had serious implications for the country. Revisiting the past is important in this context, especially when our past decisions have had a significant impact on shaping our foreign policy to the point of binding it rigidly within a certain paradigm. Relations with Iran deteriorated rapidly since the conscious decision made by General Zia to steer the country towards the Wahhabist Saudis and the accruing benefits of that alliance after the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

The efforts to contain the revolution from spreading eastwards into Pakistan were largely successful. But the ensuing decades also witnessed violent sectarianism as Saudi- and Iran-sponsored sectarian outfits waged their proxy battles unabated. While the sectarian fighting between extremist groups has been reduced, the targeting of the Shia community in Pakistan – like the Hazara community – is highly reprehensible. It is vital that Pakistan ensure the security of its own people.

The much-touted strategic depth doctrine to counter the encirclement and isolationist policy implemented by New Delhi has so far dominated the focus of policymakers in Pakistan. While real politik demanded that the state ensure its survival in every possible manner, Pakistan chose a blinkered approach. Diplomacy is a vital state instrument but in this case, it was not used as thoroughly as it should have been. It is true that the international sanctions regime led by the US on Iran was a deterrent but Pakistan could have better managed its relations with Iran.

Hence, it is very important that we make concerted efforts in salvaging our relations with Iran. This must entail facilitation for deeper commercial and cultural exchanges besides the requisite joint security mechanisms to prevent cross-border movement of terrorists and traffickers.

Gwadar and Chabahar might inadvertently be pitted as competitors but they could also serve to complement each other. Iran has a big stake in the security and stability of Afghanistan – as does Pakistan. The growing presence of Daesh in the region poses a threat to all states including India in the near future. Unless there is coordinated security cooperation between Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, non-state groups will continue to pose a perpetual threat to stability.

It might appear that Pakistan has limited options at present given the uneasy relations with the US over Afghanistan and India but it is a powerful regional player and must use its advantages dexterously for its national interests.


The writer is a former deputy opinion editor of Gulf News.


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