Offering to mediate in the latest flare-up was the easy way out of a difficult situation for Pakistan as Iran, Saudi Arabia and the US would all have wanted it to be on their side
Prime Minister Imran Khan is used to talking big and this was evident recently at Davos, Switzerland, when he claimed that Pakistan had played its part to help defuse tensions between Iran and the US and Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The prime minister said on the sidelines of the annual World Economic Forum that Pakistan had tried its best to prevent an escalation in tensions between Iran and the US and its allies as this would have been a catastrophe and an insanity.
When pointedly asked whether President Donald Trump agreed with his assessment, the prime minister replied that he thought the US president understood the situation.
Despite the claims made by Prime Minister Imran Khan, none of the warring sides have publicly acknowledged that Pakistan’s mediation had an impact in defusing tensions between them. Though all past efforts by Pakistan to mediate in such situations have failed, this hasn’t deterred it from continuing to take on this challenging if worthwhile task.
It is now obvious that the tensions between Iran and the US as well as Iran and Saudi Arabia have eased and the looming threat of a war in the Middle East has receded, but it is also a fact that the underlying issues that continue to threaten peace in the region have yet to be resolved. As a global power, the US has interests worldwide, but Iran has stood up to it and pursued a policy that goes against American interests in the Middle East and beyond.
With Iran threatening to avenge the death of General Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the elite Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps killed in a US drone strike in Baghdad, Iraq on January 3, and his successor Esmail Qaani vowing to exact revenge in a manly way rather than the cowardly manner used by the Americans, the situation could quickly deteriorate in case of an attack targetting the US and its allies and the counter-attack that the world’s lone superpower would inevitably undertake.
As in the past, Pakistan has tried to play the role of a mediator when tensions rose between Iran and the US after General Soleimani’s assassination. The Iran-Saudi relations were already tense as a result of the volatile situation in the Middle East, particularly in Yemen where Iran-backed Houthis are involved in a conflict with the US-supported Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
As a neighbour, Iran has to be befriended all the time. Pakistan has a sizeable Shia population and it cannot afford to run a policy that would alienate them. Similarly, Saudi Arabia has always been a friend and benefactor and it is in Pakistan’s interest not to give it a cause to complain.
This was yet another test of Pakistan’s foreign policy. Earlier in April 2015, Pakistan had wisely stayed out of the war in Yemen despite pressure from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, a move which also satisfied Iran and reflected the opinion of a majority of Pakistanis. Thanks to the Parliament advising the government to stay neutral in the Yemen conflict, Pakistan avoided getting caught in a faraway war for promoting the interests of other countries even if they happened to be friends like Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This prompts one to imagine the costs Pakistan could have avoided if an empowered Parliament had recommended to military ruler General Pervez Musharraf in late 2001 not to get involved in the US-led war on terror post-9/11.
Offering to mediate in the latest flare-up was thus the easy way out of a difficult situation for Pakistan as Iran, Saudi Arabia and the US would all have wanted it to be on their side. Islamabad was in no position to offend any of the three countries and the best option was to stay neutral in their disputes to be able to play the role of a mediator. The policy being promoted by Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government, with backing from the powerful military, is to stay out of others’ wars after having suffered immensely on account of such misadventures in the past.
The wish to stay neutral in the Iran-US conflict is good, but it isn’t an easy road to follow because most Pakistanis are anti-American and would want to stand behind fellow Iranian Muslims. Neutrality in the Iran-Saudi conflict is also difficult as many Pakistanis tend to support one or the other country in line with their sectarian and political preferences. However, such a policy could also fuel sectarian tensions at home and further polarize the Pakistani society.
Pakistan has done well so far to maintain a balance in its relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia. As a neighbour, Iran has to be befriended all the time. Pakistan has a sizeable Shia population and it cannot afford to run a policy that would alienate them. Similarly, Saudi Arabia has always been a friend and benefactor and it is in Pakistan’s interest not to give it a cause to complain. With the Saudis firmly in the US camp and the latter committed to punish Iran and even cause a regime change in Tehran, Pakistan has to do a difficult balancing act. Meeting US expectations, whether it is in context of the Afghan peace process or in the Middle East, would forever remain a challenge for Pakistan.
Pakistan’s ties with Iran are visibly friendly, but there are also certain irritants that continue to haunt the two neighbouring Islamic nations. Iran has continued to allege that militant groups such as Jundullah and Jaish al-Adl, made up of Iranian Sunni Baloch, have used Pakistani territory to launch attacks in Iran, mostly in the Seistan-Balochistan province adjoining Pakistan’s Balochistan. It has also accused the US and the UK of using Afghanistan’s soil to destabilize Iran. For the first time last year, Pakistan alleged that Pakistani Baloch separatists were using Iranian soil to launch terrorist attacks in its Balochistan province. This added a new twist to the situation and increased the friction in Iran-Pakistan relations. Iran also has been complaining of Pakistan’s lack of interest in completing work on its side of the border on the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project.
Pakistan’s role in terms of the Iran-US dynamics cannot be viewed in isolation as many factors and interests are involved. In particular, the Saudi factor is critical as Pakistan would be obliging both Riyadh and Washington if it obliges one of them. However, appeasing the US and Saudi Arabia at the expense of Iran would likely cause avoidable problems for Pakistan.