Pakistan’s balancing act

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Sultan M Hali

PAKISTAN’S Parliament rejected a Saudi request to dispatch troops to combat Houthi rebels in Yemen, much to the chagrin of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). When Pakistan joined the Saudi led 34 nation military alliance, Iran took offence believing itself to be the target. Pakistan thus found itself between a rock and a hard place. Stung by the sensitivities of both its friends, Pakistan has had to rethink its diplomatic overtures to maintain the right balance between Tehran and Riyadh.
KSA and Pakistan enjoy decades old partnerships. The House of Saud has come to Pakistan’s aid whenever it was in trouble even when the Occident imposed sanctions against it following its nuclear tests in 1998, KSA stood by Pakistan. Similarly, Iran which is Pakistan’s next door neighbour has been a staunch ally in its every hour of need. Owing to sectarian strife in Pakistan, the relationship has been tested but it withstood the test of time. A number of important development projects between Islamabad and Iran are at bay e.g. the Iran-Pakistan Gas Pipeline Project.
In the near past, two developments may cause some strain in Tehran-Islamabad ties. They are the announcement of General Raheel Sharif’s possible acceptance to lead the Saudi-led 34 nation military alliance and the second that Pakistan may be considering a combat troop deployment to Saudi Arabia. While the former may be under consideration, the veracity of the latter is yet to be confirmed. In a recent Op-Ed by Umair Jamal titled ‘Why Would Pakistan Send Combat Troops to Saudi Arabia Now?’ the author opines that “Pakistan’s consideration of a combat troop deployment to Saudi Arabia would cross an important line.” The informed writer quotes a recently released report by “Middle Eastern Eye”, citing an anonymous source, claiming that Pakistan was planning to deploy a brigade of combat troops to Saudi Arabia to protect the Kingdom’s southern border from the Houthi militias in Yemen. A Saudi Arabia-led coalition of predominantly Sunni Muslim states has been pounding Yemen since 2015 in a bid to restore the latter’s Riyadh-allied government back to power. The Houthi rebels, an Iran-supported militia from northern Yemen, are leading Yemen’s minority Shia political groups and have resorted to guerrilla warfare to achieve their goals.
Pakistan’s defense minister, Khawaja Asif, has denied reports about Pakistani military deployment in Saudi Arabia. However, on March 15, Asif, while giving an interview to a local TV channel, disclosed that discussions between Islamabad and Riyadh were underway in this regard: “The final call to send troops to Saudi Arabia had not been taken yet, however, a mutual objective was to fight terrorism,” said the minister. It is important to note that the report also claims that Pakistan’s military brigade will remain “inside” the Kingdom’s borders and “will not be used beyond Saudi borders.” Besides, the military in Pakistan, which is widely believed to be the ultimate determinant of security and foreign policy, has not denied the report yet.
Pakistan, which is inhabited by a Sunni majority, also has a sizable Shia population whose sensitivity along with Tehran’s needs to be taken cognizance of. The diplomatic tightrope walking, which Pakistan has been doing in appeasing the feelings of both KSA and Iran, will get tested, if the latter is true. Pakistan cannot take sides in the tensions between Tehran and Riyadh. Majority of the population in Pakistan would also like Pakistan to remain neutral. In the near past, there were unconfirmed reports that Pakistan was being used in a proxy war for sectarian strife, with both Riyadh and Tehran backing militants of choice.
Pakistan’s National Action Plan (NAP) which contemplates a 20 point counterterrorism strategy has a clear edict to tackle sectarian violence. It goes to the credit of the government that the malevolence has subsided to a great extent in Pakistan. Apparently, Pakistan’s recent diplomatic nuances have smoothened ties with Tehran. Last month, Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani’s sojourn to Islamabad to participate in the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO)’s summit in Islamabad was a gesture of bonhomie. Simultaneously, the current Chief of Pakistan’s Army, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, while meeting the Iranian ambassador, hinted at enhancing “Pakistan-Iran military-to-military cooperation.”
There had been earlier reports of Iran’s concerns regarding the development of Pakistan’s deep sea port, Gawadar but with the expression of interest by Tehran to join the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), reconciling on this vital issue may be at hand. The news that two parliamentary committees from Iran and Pakistan are expected to jointly visit Chabahar and Gwadar ports in an effort to highlight that both countries are not trying to undermine each other’s interests with the development of these ports is very welcome. Meanwhile, another diplomatic gesture by Pakistan may further soften Tehran’s stance towards Pakistan and appease its fears that Islamabad is taking sides in the Yemen crisis. Pakistan’s advisor to the prime minister on foreign affairs, Sartaj Aziz, in a statement has said that “Pakistan supports Yemen’s territorial integrity and struggle for peace.” Additionally, the government in Pakistan has pledged to provide $1 million in immediate humanitarian assistance to Yemen.
As far as Iran is concerned, Pakistan has another aspect of misgiving and that is Indo-Iranian ties. It has been brought out that India has been supporting the development of Iranian port of Chah Bahar to counter the importance of Gawadar. India has constructed a highway in Afghanistan so that the Central Asian States and Afghanistan which are landlocked may use Chah Bahar instead of Gawadar. India and Iran are also engaged in weapons development programs. It becomes a matter of concern if Iranian soil is being used to destabilize Pakistan. After all senior RAW operative and master terrorist Commander Kulbhoshan Yadav was operating from Chah Bahar to sabotage the CPEC. Pakistan needs to hone its diplomatic skills and fine tune and harmonize its exterior manoeuvre to keep India at bay as well as maintain its fine balancing act between Tehran and Riyadh. Perhaps Pakistan would do well to use its good offices to bring about a rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran.
—The writer is retired PAF Group Captain and a TV talk show host.
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