Shahid M Amin
TURKEY, Iran and Pakistan have been, in past centuries, dominant powers in the world. The Persian Empire was the leading power in the ancient world. The Ottoman Empire in Turkey, until the end of 18th century, dominated a vast area in southeastern Europe and ME. Mughal Empire in South Asia was all-powerful and achieved the highest GDP in the world. During their days of glory, each among these three countries won numerous battles and seemed invincible. Those historical memories remain a part of their national psyche. These countries were once great and have yearnings for greatness today.
At present, all three countries possess strong armed forces, consisting of some of the best fighting soldiers. They rank among the strongest military powers in the world. The reported size of their armed forces in 2017 was: Pakistan has 643,800, Turkey has 610,000 and Iran has 555,000. They have battle-hardened armed forces, which have seen actual combat in recent times. Pakistan is also a nuclear power. After the major setback in the 1971 War, Pakistan decided to develop nuclear weapons as a deterrent to any further aggression by India. As of 2018, Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is said to be third largest in the world. It also possesses missiles with a range of over 1,700 miles that can reach as far west as Greece and cover the whole of India.
Pakistan leads Iran and Turkey in population. It has 210 million people, compared to 80 million each in Iran and Turkey. Size-wise, Iran is the biggest in area with 1,648,195 sq. km, while Pakistan has 796,095 sq. km and Turkey has 783,562 sq. km. Turkey leads in the economic sector, having a per capita income of $10,743, whereas per capita income in Iran is $4,683 and Pakistan has $1,468 per capita income. The GDP of Turkey is the 17th largest in the world at $847,429 billion. The GDP of Iran is $376,556 billion and that of Pakistan is $284,185 billion.
Pakistan is strong in agriculture and ranks among the top ten countries in the production of wheat, rice, sugarcane and cotton. The ongoing China-Pakistan collaboration under CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) is likely to transform Pakistan in the near future and enhance its geostrategic standing. Turkey is also strong in agriculture, particularly in fruits. Turkey is currently rated as a developed country. Iran is a major oil and gas producing country. It has 10% of the world’s proven oil reserves and 15% of its gas reserves. Iran is considered as an “energy superpower”. In geostrategic terms, Turkey, Iran and Pakistan constitute a massive landmass, stretching from Europe to Central Asia. They have the capability to emerge as a strong regional group. The question is whether they have the political will to do so. That comes when there is a commonality of objectives. At present, they do have considerable convergence of interests. They are neighbours with common borders. They have a history of close collaboration, including military ties. They link Europe with Asia and can develop as a major transit route. Each is important in the Muslim world. Pan-Islamism is a strong sentiment in Pakistan. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran has shown an ideological commitment to Muslim unity. Turkey under Erdogan has moved towards a more openly pro-Muslim orientation and has downgraded its links with Israel. All three support the Palestinian cause against Israel, though Iran is more strongly opposed to Israel. Turkey and Pakistan have had a history of strong relations with USA, but both have serious differences with it at present. Iran has been openly hostile to USA since the 1979 Revolution. The present Trump administration in USA is no less hostile to Iran.
There exist some impediments to forging of close cooperation between these three countries. The main destabilizing factor in Middle East politics today is the cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iran is perceived to have a sectarian orientation. It has been supporting Shias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen. It is sympathetic to Shia populations in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Iranian army and Iran-backed Hezbollah militants in Lebanon have openly bolstered the Assad regime in Syria, when it was collapsing. Iran is supporting the Houthi Shia rebels in Yemen. The Saudi-Iran rivalry creates problems for Pakistan, which seeks good relations with Iran but cannot jeopardize its special relations with Saudi Arabia. Iran’s relations with Pakistan would gain if it looks beyond the sectarian prism and finds a modus vivendi with Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies. Similarly, Iran-Pakistan relations will be bolstered if Iran does not develop relations with India at the expense of Pakistan.
The unending war in Afghanistan is a big hurdle to peace and stability. It adversely affects Pakistan, both internally and externally, and is a cause of concern for the region and beyond. A political settlement is the only way out of this quagmire. A way has to be found to bring the Taliban in a national coalition. This will enable the US/NATO to pull out from Afghanistan and ease tensions in US-Pakistan relations. Peace in Afghanistan would also help reduce the menace of terrorism. In any event, Pakistan must continue its efforts to eradicate terrorism inside Pakistan, not only by continuing the ongoing military operations but also through counter-insurgency measures.
Turkey and Pakistan enjoy exemplary relations and have no bilateral issues. Turkey’s relations with Iran have improved, despite continuing differences in the context of Syria. Turkey needs to find a way to extricate itself from the long-running Syrian civil war. It is hosting millions of Syrian refugees. There has been an increase in terrorist incidents inside Turkey. A political settlement in Syria will benefit Turkey and will be to everyone’s advantage. Turkey will also gain by improving its relations with Egypt and by keeping out of regional issues like the current Saudi-Qatar tensions.
Terrorism is a common menace for Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. While the threat posed by ISIS (Daesh) has largely ended, enough has not been done by the three countries to eradicate the ideology that breeds Islamist extremism and terrorism. Extremist groups are continuing to brainwash vulnerable young people through their narrow-minded interpretation of Islam. In all Islamic countries, the governments, civil society and right-thinking Ulema need to counter such brainwashing by propagating the humane message of Islam. This will help reduce Islamophobia in the West and a potential civilisational clash. To conclude, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey will benefit greatly by working together. They have the resources and the capability to become a powerful group in the future Asia and Eurasia. What they presently lack is a geostrategic vision and the requisite political will.
— The writer served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Soviet Union, France, Nigeria and Libya.