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On balancing Iran-Saudi relations: A hamletian quandary

If foreign policy of a country is to be gauged by relations with immediate neighbors, Pakistan seems to have not done well so far. Lately, Pakistan faces the challenge how to balance its ties with Iran and Saudi Arabia. Matters came to a head when in early May the Iranian military commander issued a threat to Pakistan, following killings of some Iranians by militants ostensibly operating from Pakistan. His language was harsh; he warned of Iran’s strong reprisals in future. This had followed the earlier brief visit by Iranian foreign minister to mend fences with Pakistan.

It seems that Pakistan government’s decision to allow former military chief General Raheel Sharif to head the multi-nation Islamic coalition ostensibly at the behest of the US has irked Iran beyond measure. The Iranians see it another attempt aimed at ‘Saudiasation’ of Pakistan foreign policy.

Notwithstanding the assurances that Pakistan will remain neutral and that it is desirous to effect Iran-Arab rapprochement through mediation and strive for ‘Islamic unity’ the Iranians remain sceptical. Not fully convinced that Pakistan will not contribute any troops nor be partisan in any Middle East turmoil, the Iranians perceive it as a pro-US, pro-Saudi move to checkmate and isolate Iran; moreover, they view it in sectarian terms as none of the member states, such as Iraq, Syria, Bahrain and Lebanon are included in the above coalition.

Iran is a proximate and culturally close neighbor and was the first country to recognize Pakistan. The late Shah vowed to protect Pakistani Balochistan when hit by insurgency in the 1970s. However, in the last three decades, Iran-Pakistan irritants have accentuated over Pak-US alignment, Iran-Pak border tensions, support to Taliban forces in Afghanistan and sectarian issues. Also, the IPI pipeline, as a confidence-building measure, stood stymied by US sanctions and Pakistan’s tepid support. Lately, Iran-Syria-Russia forces are fighting against forces of US, Turkey and some Gulf countries.

The 1979, Islamic revolution in Iran was a watershed event which started creating estrangement between Iran and Pakistan. The latter became a ‘front line’ state and ‘non-Nato’ ally against the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. Besides, the Islamic revolution sent tremors of uneasiness in many Arab states and their Western patrons. Iran came under heavy pressure through repeated UN sanctions. After the 9/11, its eastern neighbour, Pakistan, recognized and supported Taliban’s installation in Afghanistan till ousted by the US military action.

Pakistan is overly dependent upon the Arab Gulf nations for financial largesse and religious reasons. The recent Islamic Summit in Saudi Arabia attended by President Trump is perceived by Iran as forging a fresh grouping against Iran on the ISIS threat.

Pakistan is thus faced with a quandary: how to balance its relations with immediate western neighbor, Iran, and relatively distant beneficiary, Saudi Arabia. Diplomacy becomes difficult unless some ingredients are in order. In fact, Pakistan does not possess the wherewithal, diplomatic, economic or otherwise to act as mediator or honest broker as it has strong stakes – both economic and religious with the Arab Gulf nations. Strong economy, credible national image and adroit diplomacy are other requirements. Merely touting about one’s geo-political location, nuclear weapons or large population is not enough: it is how one radiates influence and hard and soft power.

The recent re-election in Iran of moderate President Hassan Rouhani is a positive development. Normalization with neighbours, in any case, is a sine qua non for fruitful trade, investment and development. As an immediate neighbour, Iran is the second biggest economy in the Middle East as well as a regional power: hence good relations with the latter merit a serious review requiring diplomatic nimbleness.

(The writer is Visiting Faculty at Department of Defence and Strategic Studies, Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, former Adviser COMSATS and ex-President, Islamabad Policy Research Institute)

Dr Maqsudul Hasan Nuri, "On balancing Iran-Saudi relations: A hamletian quandary," Business Recorder. 2017-06-04.
Keywords: Political science , Foreign policy , Islamic Revolution , General Raheel Sharif , President Hassan Rouhani , Pakistan , US