Can Imran Khan Mediate the Persian Gulf Crisis?

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman

by Fatemeh Aman

In recent days, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has visited both Iran and Saudi Arabia amid reports that he’s been asked by U.S. President Donald Trump to mediate between the two Persian Gulf rivals and, potentially, between Iran and the United States. To better understand Khan’s potential role and what it might mean for Pakistan and the Middle East-South Asia region, LobeLog turned to our South Asia expert, Fatemeh Aman, to get her thoughts.

Q) There have been reports that Saudi and U.S. officials asked Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan to mediate between the Trump administration and Iran. If true, do you consider Khan well-placed to mediate between Iran and the U.S.?

A) The reports seem to be credible. According to Khan, Donald Trump has asked him to “try and be a go-between with Iran and the United States.” There are two possibilities here. Either Trump’s suggestion was one of those impulsive decisions he frequently seems to make only to later walk back, or he genuinely meant it. Either way, I don’t think he intends for Khan to be a reasonable mediator. Relations between Iran and the United States are very complicated and yet could be improved easily. Trump’s so-called “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, imposing crippling sanctions on the Iranian economy, have had the exact opposite of their intended effect. They have worsened Iran’s behavior and brought the entire region close to a catastrophe. It has radicalized some of Iran’s moderate positions and strengthened hardliners in Tehran. In fact, according to a new poll, the IRGC is becoming more popular than before and hardliners more acceptable to the Iranian public.

There was a clear solution to the issue of Iran-U.S. relations, which unfortunately was killed by the Trump administration. By that I mean the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA). But back to Khan’s possible mediation efforts between Iran and the United States, what Trump probably had in mind was just for Khan to arrange a meeting with Iranian leaders, similar to the attempt to bring Iran Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to the White House for publicity purposes, which apparently was rejected by Zarif.

Q) Meanwhile, there are increasing hints that Saudi Arabia and Iran are moving to some kind of détente. Pakistan would presumably serve as a kind of interlocutor in that case as well. Is there any evidence that Pakistan is playing a role, if indeed such a détente is underway? Is Khan well-placed to facilitate that process? Why, or why not?

A) Either India or Pakistan would have been very suitable for mediation. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has chosen not to get involved. In this he mirrors past Pakistani PMs, who have also chosen not to mediate between Riyadh and Tehran. But Khan is different. He is well-liked both in Iran and in Saudi Arabia and is perhaps the most suitable person to mediate between those two countries. He’s talked of the need to improve Iran-Saudi relations from the very beginning of his term last August. He and his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), were against the Yemen war and Pakistan’s participation in it. The PTI even opposed the appointment of retired Pakistani General Rahee Sharif to lead the Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT) coalition.

The rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia has impacted both countries’ neighbors. It has fueled the rise of violent extremism, a decline in tolerance, and proxy wars, and these have all destabilized the Middle East and South Asia. No regional player has been untouched by these conflicts. More and more countries find themselves caught in the competition between Tehran and Riyadh. For example, Iran firmly believes that the Saudis are financing Sunni extremist groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan. But Iran’s deployment of Pakistani and Afghan Shia militias to Syria, has deepened religious division in those countries and brought them to the edge of internal conflict. I am not saying these divisions started with Iran’s Syria deployment, as Shia-Sunni rivalries go back very far. But because of Iranian and Saudi actions, these rivalries have intensified and become more visible.

Q) Obviously, Pakistan has been a critical actor with respect to Washington’s efforts to get some kind of settlement with the Taliban in Afghanistan as well. How has that been going, and how would it affect any mediation effort between Iran and the U.S. if at all?

A) The talks with the Taliban are on hold. I don’t think the peace process is over but it is definitely not high on Trump’s agenda at this moment. I believe what’s happening right now between the Kurds and Turkey in Syria will prompt the administration to slow down its push for leaving Afghanistan quickly. Khan was instrumental in the peace talks with the Taliban but I believe he overlooked Trump’s tendency to act on impulse. The secrecy surrounding Trump’s decision to invite Taliban officials to Camp David and, even stranger, then announcing the cancellation of that meeting on Twitter, were unexpected.

Reasonable negotiations between the U.S. and Iran would benefit the entire region but it would especially benefit Afghanistan. Iran’s cooperation was essential in the 2001 Bonn conference that created the first post-Taliban government in Afghanistan. In the decades since the existence of the Islamic Republic, Iran and the United States always left open some channels for communication. Unfortunately, the Trump administration has cut all those channels, and this is very worrisome. Excluding Iran from negotiations over the future of Afghanistan, especially when other countries are involved, is not wise and probably will not lead to any lasting solution.

Q) Of course, the Pakistani military no doubt exerts a strong influence on the country’s foreign policy. Do you think it diverges from Khan’s views on possible mediation between Iran and the U.S. and Iran and Saudi Arabia? If so, what interests could the military seek to protect from Khan’s diplomacy in both cases? Or would it be completely on board?

A) In his trip to Iran in April this year, Khan also took the head of Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), General Asim Munir, with him. That was to assure Tehran that he had blessing of the military to increase cooperation with Iran. So I believe Pakistan’s military is supporting him in his mediation efforts. One of the reasons is that the military’s focus at this point is Kashmir, perhaps more than ever before, and defusing tensions in the neighborhood and improving Pakistan’s image would be helpful.

Q) How does the situation in Kashmir affect Pakistan’s possible role as mediator, if at all?

A) Khan’s foreign policy has not effective in drawing attention to events in Kashmir and rally Islamic countries to effectively oppose India’s decision to revoke Kashmiri autonomy. If Khan were to take the role of mediator between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and/or Iran and the United States, it will boost his international prominence and potentially help Pakistan draw more visibility to the Kashmir issue.

Q) How might Khan’s mediation efforts impact him politically?

A) Khan is facing deep domestic challenges, such as a very weak economy that he inherited but has not been able to improve since he took office. The tax system he has implemented has been, to a population that is not used to paying taxes, highly unpopular and may cause him to lose the support of his middle class base.

However, Khan now has the potential to do something extraordinary that no Pakistani PM has ever done. If he manages to bring rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia closer together and ease tensions between them, it would be a remarkable legacy and could dramatically improve Pakistan’s—and his—image in the world.

Q) And how does Trump’s abrupt withdrawal of U.S. troops in northeast Syria potentially affect Pakistan’s mediation efforts, if at all?

A) It will not impact Pakistan’s mediation effort. Historically, Turkey and Pakistan have close relations that go back many decades. Turkey has generally supported Pakistan’s position on Kashmir and Pakistan has expressed “support and solidarity” with Turkey. So events in northeastern Syria will not be of any concern to Pakistan and will not impact any mediation efforts.

Fatemeh Aman

Fatemeh Aman, a nonresident senior fellow at Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, has written on Iranian, Afghan, and other Middle Eastern affairs for over 20 years. She has worked and published as a journalist, and her writings have appeared in numerous publications, including Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst, Jane’s Intelligence Review, the Atlantic Council, and the Middle East Institute’s publications. She is the author of the Atlantic Council’s Water Dispute Escalating between Iran and Afghanistan (2016), and co-author of Iran, Afghanistan, and South Asia: Resolving Regional Sources of Instability (2013).