Tariq Niaz Bhatti
PRIME minister Imran Khan’s arrival at the helm of affairs in Islamabad has been well received generally in the region and in Riyadh and Tehran in particular. Iran’s felicitation messages and state level phone calls were followed by its FM visit to Islamabad with a view to seeking Pakistani support for its stance on regional security and economic cooperation. Iran invited the PM for a visit to Tehran. Whereas Riyadh, a long-time ally of Pakistan, also sent felicitation messages followed by phone calls by his Royal Highness King Salman who also invited the PM for a visit.
Regional security and economic situation are evolving very fast due to imposition of US sanctions against Iran as part of Trumps America First policy. US objective in the ME include curtailing Tehran’s alleged interventionist stance on Syria and Yemen and checking its regional economic, political and military clout through imposing sanctions and ultimately affecting a regime change in Tehran. The US views its move to usher political stability in the region and help control nuclear proliferation. KSA ongoing war in Yemen and introduction of major internal political restructuring and reforms has exposed the kingdom to unknown dangers. Under the evolving security environment Pakistan’s role has assumed added importance and calls for a well-thought out approach specially when US is cutting back aid and stopping coalition support fund payments. Pakistan faces a huge current account deficit due to a non-performing economy and badly needs friends and allies for support. Moreover, FATF is also considering to change Pakistan’s rating from grey to black seemingly under influence of the US which will further complicate its economic problems. Pakistan’s foreign policy makers will have a tight rope to walk ahead. It will have to avoid taking sides and work towards easing tension between KSA and Iran.
Traditionally Pakistan had been an ally of KSA and in return received substantial financial aid as well. Moreover, there are about 1.5 million expat Pakistanis working in KSA who send billions of dollars back home annually. Pakistan also maintains a brigade sized force in KSA. Present ruling party while in opposition had strongly opposed dispatching armed forces personal to fight as part of Islamic coalition of forces against Yemen. Pakistan providing force or military advisors to the KSA has worked to damage its relations with its immediate neighbour Iran. This is evident form the fact that at present trade with Iran is negligible to say the least. India moved in fast to fill the vaccum and is making direct investment in Iran’s Farzad B gas fields in addition to developing Chabahar port close to the straits of Hormuz. Recently KSA has embarked upon a program of internal political restructuring at a massive level which will change the entire face of the Saudi society. Such reforms especially in the wake of rising tide of extremism and intolerance in Muslim Ummah may create a wave of internal political and sectarian troubles. Yemen’s situation is not yet stabilizing and Shia Sunni divide allegedly sponsored by Iran can spread on a wider scale and may take Bahrain in its folds too. Death sentence awarded to a Saudi Shiite woman in KSA may further destabilize the fragile security situation in view of expected Iranian response. Under the circumstances a pure Pakistani military contingent under its own command ready to fight the enemies of Saudi state will most probably be the Saudi demand from its longtime ally.
Pakistan tried to mend its relations with Iran in the past. But due to Pakistan’s policy tilt towards KSA, its support to Afghan Taliban and its lackluster approach to the joint Pak-Iran gas pipeline project the relations remained sour. Imported Iranian gas via IP gas pipeline will be expensive for electricity generation in Pakistan especially in the presence of coal fired Chinese plants, however its re-export as LNG through Gwadar is a workable option. Similarly, a joint Pak-Iran oil refinery at Gwadar can also be useful to process and re-export Iranian oil and will help create more economic activities at the port. Pakistan may also invite Iran to jointly work towards countering insurgency and bringing peace in Afghanistan which is a common problem for both. Iran has yet to officially announce its joining the CPEC, but under the sanctioned environment Iran can be persuaded towards a win-win situation. The US has also influenced the souring of Pak-Iran relations through insistence on its projects like TAPI and CASA-1000 which has kept both Pakistan and Iran from having mutually beneficial economic relationship.
Pakistan needs to set its priorities right in its fresh foreign policy initiatives. It should not make alliances at the cost of its immediate neighbour and work towards adopting role of a mediator. Trump’s America First Policy is bringing negative economic repercussions for Pakistan too. Pakistan will have to work with US in a more pragmatic manner to resolve its differences amicably and the recent US Foreign Secretary visit to Islamabad is very important in this regard.
— The writer is freelance columnist based in Islamabad.