A neutral posture

Updated 20 May 2019


The writer is a freelance journalist.
The writer is a freelance journalist.

BREWING tensions in the Persian Gulf should be a cause for alarm in Pakistan. The US deployment of an aircraft carrier and bombers, alleged proxy attacks, Saudi Arabia’s calls for surgical strikes against Iran, and Iranian threats about resuming its nuclear programme are setting the stage for conflict.

But US and Iranian officials are simultaneously softening their stances, calling for talks and downplaying prospects of direct conflict. Tweeting on Friday, US President Donald Trump summed up the situation quite well: “With all the Fake and Made Up News out there, Iran can have no idea what is actually going on!”

And neither can anyone else. What is clear, however, is that the Trump administration’s ham-fisted efforts to instal a better nuclear deal with Iran will increase the precariousness of regional dynamics, with uncertain outcomes, and implications for Pakistan’s stability.

Pakistan has already stated that it will not take sides in the current confrontation, and called for US restraint. These are the right noises to make. The need for Pakistan to remain neutral in any stand-off between the US and Saudi Arabia on one side and Iran on the other is clear.

Our parliament’s decision in 2015 not to send troops to support the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen set an excellent precedent for this neutrality. However, that position could be tested under the latest circumstances. Following the Yemen snub to the kingdom, Pakistan showered Saudi Arabia with assurances that it would defend Saudi Arabia’s interests.

Pakistan must entrench its ties with Iran.

Recent developments, such as the Houthi drone strikes against Saudi oil infrastructure, for which Riyadh has blamed Tehran, could lead to renewed pressure on Pakistan to provide support to the kingdom.

Given Saudi Arabia’s recent largesse tow­ards Pakistan — last year’s $6 billion emergency loan, promises of up to $20bn in investments, and even offers of LNG — Riyadh may be tempted to test the strength of Islamabad’s allegiance and, given its indebtedness, our government would struggle to push back.

Some analysts have argued that given Saudi Arabia’s growing engagement with India, it can hardly object to Pakistan balancing ties and continuing to engage with Iran. But we should have no delusions that this is an equal partnership. Riyadh would expect to count on Pakistan if the regional situation deteriorated significantly; for example, if it came to direct conflict, or if the resumption of Iran’s nuclear weapons programme sparked an arms race in which Saudi Arabia would rely on Pakistani cooperation.

The timing of the US-Iran flare-up could not be worse in terms of Pakistan-Iran relations, following Imran Khan’s overdue and productive trip to Iran — including his symbolically important visit to Mashhad — last month. Given recent, audacious attacks by Baloch militant groups within Pakistan, the need to secure Iranian cooperation to stamp out militant sanctuaries across the western border is essential. Indeed, the key outcome from Khan’s visit was the rapid reaction force to combat militancy along the border, which must be sustained.  

The reasons for Pakistan to maintain good ties with Iran persist: the 950-kilometre bor­der; the need for counterterrorism cooper­a­­­­­tion and a coordinated approach towards ending the Afghan conflict; to prevent en­t­­a­­n­­glement in a Middle Eastern arms race; and most importantly, to stave off threats of renewed proxy sectarian conflict within Pakistan.

The recent tensions are another reminder that Pakistan must entrench its ties with Iran, so that each regional conflagration does not throw bilateral ties into question.

Beyond counterterrorism cooperation, there are many ways for Pakistan to do this. One is to build awareness among the public that the Pakistan-Iran relationship is a long, substantive one. How many know that Iran was the first nation to recognise Pakistan?

Pakistan should also develop strategies to increase bilateral trade to the agreed target of $5bn. Plans to improve connectivity between Gwadar and Chabahar ports, and between the two countries more generally, should be fast-tracked. Pakistan should also import electricity from Iran and initiate diplomatic efforts to increase the feasibility of completing the Iran-Pakistan pipeline.

Arts and culture remain underdeveloped areas for bilateral engagement. The recent revival of Pakistani cinema has led our artists to turn to Bollywood for inspiration, lessons, and new opportunities. But budding Pakistani filmmakers could learn as much from the cinematic genius of Iranians.

Similarly, Pakistan’s vibrant poetic tradition overlaps with that of Iran’s and more high-profile mushairas could be a way to connect the people of the two countries. A diplomatic balancing act as complex as the one Pakistan must pull off between Iran, Saudi Arabia and the US will no doubt require the deployment of both hard and soft power. Let’s hope our foreign ministry is up to the task.

The writer is a freelance journalist.


Twitter: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, May 20th, 2019