Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s visit to Pakistan last week was a snapshot of what diplomacy entails: highest-level interactions, prompt discussion of a border incident, reiteration of shared strategic objectives, and agreement on actionable goals.

The timing and tenor of the visit was important, coming after harsh words from Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince against Iran — a clear indication as any that Pakistan’s balancing act in the Middle East is only going to get more precarious. The prospects for Pakistan playing a mediating role between Tehran and Riyadh as a result of Raheel Sharif’s leadership of the Islamic Military Alliance appear stillborn.

Pakistan and Iran have too many shared concerns to let regional rivalries scuttle bilateral ties. The Jaishul Adl attack that prompted Zarif’s visit highlighted an urgent one — that separatist and militant groups operating in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchestan and Pakistan’s Balochistan provinces will take advantage of the porous border and sanctuaries provided on either side to continue to carry out attacks against both states’ security forces and assets. Other joint strategic concerns include the rise of the militant Islamic State group in the region, instability in Afghanistan and of course the potential for widespread sectarian violence.

Ties with Iran must be stable.

Iran’s proxy warfare approach in the Middle East makes it vulnerable to similar designs by Saudi Arabia and other rivals. It has marginalised ethnic and religious minorities such as the Baloch and the Ahwaz Arabs of Khuzestan that Tehran fears can be exploited and used as proxies against the state. But Pakistan cannot play any part — intentional or inadvertent — in facilitating such proxy conflict as that, in turn, would make it vulnerable to retaliation by proxy, with serious implications for the security situation not only in Balochistan but also nationwide as a result of increasing sectarian conflict in a macabre throwback to the 1990s.

It must not be forgotten that there is a precedent for Saudi Arabia and Iran to engage in proxy warfare along sectarian lines within the country, and that Iran has honed such practices over recent years in conflict zones ranging from Syria to Yemen and Iraq. We have so far been complacent, assuming Tehran is otherwise occupied and resource-stretched in the Middle East. But if it is pushed to defend its strategic interests in the face of what it increasingly perceives to be a hostile Pakistan, particularly one that is subservient to Saudi Arabia, Iran may find a way to retaliate.

Limiting the potential for proxy conflict will be a challenge for Islamabad and Tehran, primarily because the bilateral relationship itself is in danger of being hijacked by broader geopolitical dynamics: Saudi-Iran, Pakistan-India, China-India, US-Iran, US-China. Developments that should be opportunities for increased trade and connectivity — the opening of Iran’s economy, CPEC and Chabahar — are instead being reframed as competing initiatives that echo the rivalries at play in our region. Given that many of the geopolitical actors in the region have an appetite for unconventional warfare, the stage is apparently being set for the Pakistan-Iran relationship to fail.

But this form of conflict is arguably the most destabilising, operating at a sub-state level, can take the form of militancy, propaganda, illicit funding and co-option, and relying on co-opting and corrupting at the community level. Proxy conflicts shred societies, making everyone suspect. Pakistan is already suffering the ravages of such unconventional strategies, and cannot afford to pick new battles in this realm.

It doesn’t help that Pakistan’s domestic dynamics threaten its ability to manage good relations with Iran and other neighbours and allies. While Zarif’s visit was successful, Pakistan struggled on other fronts — clashes at Chaman, refusals by the Afghan leadership to visit Pakistan, continuing tensions with India, including clashes along the LoC, threats from India’s vice chief of army staff, and the Indian state’s refusal to secure the visit of Pakistani students, who were turned back following threats from the Shiv Sena.

Pakistan needs a robust foreign policy to manage growing tensions and even better diplomats to execute it. Rather than see improvements on this front, we have seen a further hollowing out of the Foreign Office, with dismissed Tariq Fatemi, a diplomat with a 35-year career, emerging as the latest sign of a service in collapse.

Pakistanis have quickly resigned themselves to the reality of a ‘hybrid’ democracy, one in which the security establishment defines policies and civilians implement them. But the hybridity does not seem to be working. Civilian-military tensions are raging, and as our institutions seek to rout each other, their ability to maintain a democratic facade and pursue diplomatic means is eroding. The variation in our engagements with our neighbours over recent days should make it clear that diplomacy is always preferable, but for that we need effective, empowered civil servants.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

Twitter: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, May 8th, 2017



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