Misplaced optimism?

Published March 19, 2023
The writer is a security analyst.
The writer is a security analyst.

PAKISTAN can take comfort in the decision taken by Iran and Saudi Arabia, after mediation by China, to restore diplomatic ties. Pakistan has long been struggling to maintain a balance in its ties with the two states, although it has always maintained a clear tilt towards Riyadh because of its constant financial and political support. Pakistan has not fully exploited the potential of its economic and trade engagement with Iran evidently on the pretext of factors concerning Saudi Arabia and the US.

It is too early to predict whether the restoration of Saudi-Iranian ties will put an end to their politico-ideological rivalry; it is also too simplistic to assume that it will resolve sectarian tensions in Pakistan, which have largely been abetted by the Saudis and Iranians in the past.

Many in Islamabad also describe the development as a game changer for Pakistan based on the perception that normalcy between the two archrivals in the Middle East will ease some economic difficulties. Pakistan needs to review its relationship with both countries; it may discover that the restoration of diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia cannot change much for Pakistan as the problem lies in its own (bilateral) relations with each of the two countries.

Some optimistic analysts in the Middle East and China have portrayed the development as a major shift in the global and regional political landscape and have hinted at the formation of a new power bloc. Others see this as part of the larger Saudi effort to diversify its strategic, economic and political options, change its global image, and decrease dependency on traditional strategic allies, including Pakistan, which maintain a position of neutrality when it needs help. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is the architect of the ongoing transformation of the ideological state, may have learned this ‘lesson’ when Pakistan decided to stay neutral during the Yemen war.

The Saudi-Iran peace deal may not change things for Pakistan.

Iran is also looking for avenues to reduce international pressure and expanding economic cooperation with the Gulf states. It faces constant impediments in expanding ties with its neighbours, including Pakistan and Afghanistan which limits it potential to build a solid export base.

Pakistan needs to realise that Saudi Arabia broke off relations with Iran in 2016, while Pakistan already had a problematic relationship with it. It never capitalised on the economic cooperation with its northwestern neighbour and maintained a vague position on the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project.

The 25-year contract to export Iran’s natural gas through a pipeline to Pakistan was signed by the two countries in 2009 when the PPP was in power. It was supposed to be implemented by 2015. Now Tehran is demanding that Islamabad construct its portion of the pipeline by March 2024 or pay a penalty of $18 billion. Many in Islamabad blamed former president Asif Zardari and his government for signing the deal for political reasons, as the PPP government was not very popular in Riyadh. The subsequent PML-N government averted the commitment, citing reasons of international sanctions. However, the government did not want to annoy Riyadh, and the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif received a red carpet reception on his visit to the Saudi kingdom.

The restoration of diplomatic ties has brought Iran and Saudi Arabia to the 2016 position. This was the year when the Saudi-led Operation Decisive Storm against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels had entered its second year. Pakistan had maintained a position of neutrality in this war for multiple internal and external reasons, which annoyed the Saudi rulers, who saw Pakistan’s neutrality as non-cooperation. Pakistan had tried to pacify Saudi anger, allowing retired army chief Gen Raheel Sharif to lead the 41-nation armed coalition. The Saudis hoped it might lead to Pakistani military assistance in Yemen. However, the PML-N government maintained that the alliance would not participate in unrelated military operations.

The Yemen issue has greatly disappointed the Saudi crown prince as most Saudi allies, who received oil and financial assistance from the kingdom, have not extended the anticipated military support. During the process of introducing changes in internal power structures and testing relations with Saudi allies, he became adept at walking on a tightrope. Some analysts believe he is testing the political and diplomatic strength of the kingdom and that the restoration of diplomatic ties with Iran is part of that strategy.

Renewed relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia may have many implications for the Middle East. However, as mentioned earlier, it may hardly change things for Pakistan. For Saudis, defence cooperation has been an issue, and for Iran, border security and acts of terrorism are among the major irritants in its bilateral relations with Pakistan, which has similar and genuine concerns about Iran as the Baloch insurgents now use its territory to launch operations against Pakistani security forces.

Regarding the impact of Iran-Saudi relations on sectarian harmony in Pakistan, efforts were already underway in the country by the state, religious communities and civil society to evolve harmony; however, the impact of these efforts has not been measured yet. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia is on the way to ideological transformation, creating a dilemma for Pakistani religious scholars. This factor may have contributed to the recent decline of sectarian violence in Pakistan, but concrete evidence of this is still missing. However, one thing is certain: the primary factor responsible for sectarian tension and violence lies in state policies, and state institutions have continued to habitually use militant and sectarian outfits for political purposes. While giving space to the radical religious groups in the country, state institutions also encouraged them to develop their relationship with the Gulf countries. Iran and the Saudis always took this as an opportunity to expand their ideological influence in Pakistan and create sectarian proxies.

The solution to all Pakistan’s problems lies in correcting its policies rather than building false hopes on political developments elsewhere.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, March 19th, 2023

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