In his first address after the triumph of his party the Pakistan-Tehreek-I-Insaf (PTI) in the recent Pakistani General Election on July 25, 2018, Pakistani Prime Minister designate Imran Khan emphasized the need for robust ties between Pakistan and its neighbors, especially Afghanistan, Iran and China (Khan did predictably devote more time to China during his address) and Pakistan’s traditional allies like Saudi Arabia. The former cricketer also extended an olive branch to India, although some believe it was half-hearted, given that he did refer to the dire need to addressing the Kashmir issue through dialogue.
What was especially significant was Khan’s reference to the possible role which Pakistan could play in a reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran. As in his speech: “We want to improve ties with Iran. Saudi Arabia is a friend who has always stood by us in difficult times. Our aim will be that whatever we can do for conciliation in the Middle East, we want to play that role.”
Pakistan’s Ties with Saudi Arabia and Iran
While Pakistan has shared robust ties with Saudi Arabia, over the past decade Saudi Arabia’s ties with New Delhi have strengthened, not just in the economic domain, but even on security issues. For example, Riyadh extradited Abu Jundal, one of the handlers of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks. Riyadh has also attempted to bridge the trust deficit between Pakistan and the US. At the Arab Islamic American Summit in Riyadh in May 2017, the Saudis tried to arrange a one on one meeting between Nawaz Sharif and US President Donald Trump. This did not materialize, although Sharif and Trump had a very brief encounter before the commencement of the summit.
In the case of Iran-Pakistan ties, a clear shift has been underway over the past several months.
Tensions between Pakistan and Iran peaked in 2017, when the Major General Mohammed Hossein Bagheri, warned of strikes on terrorist havens within Pakistani territory as a retaliatory measure against the killing of Iranian guards by Sunni militants. Of late, there has been an upswing in ties. In November 2017, the Pakistani Army Chief During his visit, Bajwa met with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as well as Iranian Foreign Minister Javed Zarif apart from defense officials. Both sides discussed a number of issues including the need for greater defence cooperation between both countries, joint counterterrorism activities against groups like ISIS, successful border management, and the situation in Afghanistan.
Trump Administration’s Approach towards Iran
The US approach towards Iran has resulted in a significant reorientation of the latter’s foreign policy, one of which has been an improvement of ties with Pakistan. In , the Iranian Army Chief visited Pakistan, and not only was there an emphasis on greater defense cooperation (military and maritime), other issues of regional importance were also discussed. The visit came less than two months after the US withdrawal from JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), and it also took place at a time when Iran and India seemed to have developed differences over oil imports. A senior Iranian diplomat, while speaking at an event in New Delhi on , warned that if New Delhi buckled under US pressure and reduced oil imports from Iran, Tehran would withdraw ‘special privileges’ from India.
Imran Khan has some daunting challenges, especially economic, to deal with, but he cannot afford to ignore ties with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, given the economic and strategic importance of both countries for Pakistan.
What was interesting however was a meeting between the Iranian Ambassador to Pakistan, Mehdi Honardoost, and Imran Khan on August 5. The Iranian envoy had called on Khan to congratulate him for his party’s election victory. During the course of this meeting, not only was there an emphasis on further strengthening bilateral economic ties, both sides also discussed the importance of the Iran-Pakistan pipeline. Interestingly, Imran Khan also stated that Islamabad was willing to play a constructive role in reducing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Iranian envoy welcomed Khan’s proposal while also stating that this was a sensitive issue.
Significance of Khan’s Offer to Broker Peace
First, Khan’s offer of being a peace broker must have been with the intent of sending a clear message that Pakistan has its own geopolitical importance. In the past too, Pakistani leaders have endeavored to do the same, but Khan is an astute thinker, and he may be in a better position to deliver. The Pakistani army may not mind Imran Khan’s government trying to build peace in the Middle East, and even limited success in such an endeavor could help in ultimately elevating Khan’s stature. Second, a good relationship with Iran could help Pakistan achieve some of its important economic goals. Both the need to increase the level of bilateral trade between Iran and Pakistan as well as the Iran-Pakistan pipeline were discussed during the meeting. Beijing, on its part, would not mind closer economic relations as well as projects like the Iran-Pakistan pipeline. Third, Khan’s offer is important, and sends an unequivocal message, that Islamabad would like to avoid taking sides in the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia. This is of course easier said than done.
Why US and India Should Closely Observe
Other countries, especially the US and India, will be closely watching Islamabad’s ties with Tehran. The Trump Administration’s inflexible approach towards Iran — which even the US allies in Europe have criticized — could lead to the creation of a China-Pakistan-Russia-Iran nexus which could pose a strong challenge to the US. The US President on the one hand recently stated that he was willing to engage with Iran. On the other hand, in a on August 7, Trump went to the extent of issuing a threat that anyone having business links with Iran would be unable to do business with the US. Trump’s inflexibility will not just ensure that Tehran hardens its stance vis-à-vis Washington, but also that it will join hands with Beijing and Moscow. Tehran already has close economic ties with both. Islamabad too has also witnessed an upswing in strategic and economic links with Moscow as well as Tehran. So, a China-Pakistan-Russia-Iran nexus is a strong possibility.
New Delhi would also be concerned about the recent differences between New Delhi and Tehran over oil imports as well as the Chabahar Project which is crucial for India’s strategic goals in South Asia. Both sides have clarified that the India-Iran relationship is too important to be held to any one issue. Yet, New Delhi is likely to find it extremely tough to do a balancing act between Washington and Iran, especially given Trump’s lack of nuance while dealing with Iran.
It is early days as yet, and Imran Khan has some daunting challenges, especially economic, to deal with, but he cannot afford to ignore ties with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, given the economic and strategic importance of both countries for Pakistan. Irrespective of the outcomes, if in his attempts to carve out a more independent and pragmatic foreign policy for Pakistan, he achieves even a modicum of success, not only will his personal stock rise, but it could benefit Pakistan economically. It is of course premature to make all these forecasts since Khan is faced with the gargantuan task of salvaging Pakistan’s economy which is in the doldrums.