by Kaveh L. Afrasiabi
There is now a growing conviction in Iran that Pakistan has for all practical purposes turned into an ally of Iran’s regional bete noire, namely Saudi Arabia. Its much-dreaded crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman (MbS), received a warm welcome in Islamabad only a few days after a deadly attack on Iran’s revolutionary guards, which Iran has squarely blamed on Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Pakistan.
That attack, coinciding with a similar attack on India’s forces in Kashmir, has stirred new questions about Pakistan’s role in the Iran-Saudi rivalry. Although Pakistani officials have insisted that their closer ties with Riyadh “are not against Iran,” few in Iran’s power circle are convinced. Indeed, there is a growing worry that Pakistan is on the verge of joining the US-Israel-Saudi Arabia troika in the latter’s destabilization campaign, in light of the long and porous 909-kilometer Iran-Pakistan border.
Lured by generous loans from both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the financially strapped Pakistani government is expected to sign lucrative deals with Saudi Arabia during MbS’s visit worth $20 billion, primarily in oil refining, petrochemicals, renewable energy, and mining. But the price tag may turn out to be prohibitively high: a Faustian bargain whereby Pakistan sacrifices its hitherto healthy relationship with Iran by allowing its territory to be used as a launching pad for covert activities by the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia as well as acts of terrorism by groups such as Jaish ul-Adl, which Iran’s military officials assert is backed by Pakistan.
So far, Iran has shown a great deal of self-restraint. But it will likely deliver on its pledge to pursue terrorists inside Pakistan, which is permissible under international law, or it may hit those terrorists with missiles, similar to Iran’s response after a terrorist attack in the southern city of Ahvaz in September 2018. If Islamabad fails to heed Tehran’s warning and refuses to rein in the terrorists attacking Iran from their Pakistani sanctuary, then Iran may reciprocate by aiding the Baloch nationalists fighting for independence, particularly now that Saudi Arabia has increased its footprint in the strategic province by investing in Balochistan’s copper and gold mines.
Another potential casualty of a deteriorating Iran-Pakistan relations is the ambitious China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). This $40 billion linchpin of China’s Belt and Road Initiative requires Balochistan’s stability. The latter, centered on the Gwadar port expansion on the southwestern coast of Balochistan, competes with India’s Chabahar project, which has a received a U.S. sanctions waiver and permits India to bypass Pakistan by forging closer economic ties not only with Iran but also Afghanistan and the landlocked Central Asian nations.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, who has bestowed the highest civilian honor on MbS, widely suspected of ordering the gruesome murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, may soon find himself entangled with the Islamic Republic of Iran—contrary to his earlier vows to expand Iran-Pakistan trade and even to resurrect the Iran-Pakistan pipeline. But the latter will prove to be a mere pipe dream if Islamabad bandwagons with Iran’s bitter rivals, who are plotting to escalate the irredentist pressures inside Iran as part of their destabilization campaign.
If Imran Khan’s Faustian bargain transforms his country into a Saudi satellite, then Pakistan will no longer hesitate to participate in Saudi gambits in the region, thus incurring Iran’s wrath, which may translate into a closer Iran-India alliance in the future. Whether or not this will steer Iran toward a clandestine race for a nuclear deterrent depends on the extent of Iran’s national security worries. In other words, the gathering storm over Iran-Pakistan ties has a nuclear dimension, affecting the regional proliferation dynamic in the long run.
Given these stakes, Imran Khan should be very careful not to become a pawn in the current U.S.-Israeli-Saudi entente against Iran. Again, Iran suspects that Imran Khan has already made his decision. Indeed, Iran and Pakistan are close to the precipice of a new crisis in their bilateral relations. One can only hope however that Pakistan’s sober calculation of its national interests will avert a further slide toward a full-blown crisis, which does not serve the interests of either country. Perhaps Imran Khan will turn out to be a suitable interlocutor between Tehran and Riyadh instead of the latter’s new ally against the former. But this can only happen if Riyadh adopts a more conciliatory approach toward Iran, which, given Saudi Arabia’s Iran-bashing at the recent Warsaw summit, does not appear to be in the offing.
Iran and Pakistan have a long history of cordial relations. Both are founding members of the Economic Cooperation Organization, a regional organization, as well as the D-8 Organization for Economic Cooperation. Both have vested interests in Afghanistan’s security and stability, although at times they appear to be at cross-purposes. Since 2001, both countries have agreed to solve security and border issues in a special security committee, which needs to become more active to address Iran’s legitimate concerns regarding cross-border acts of terror.
In light of Iran’s legitimate concern that MbS visited Islamabad to recruit Pakistan for his campaign against Iran, Imran Khan’s government must reassure Tehran of its benign intentions. For instance, Pakistan should enhance its intelligence-sharing with Iran regarding Pakistan-based terrorists attacking Iran, as called for by the Pakistani-Iranian Joint Ministerial Commission on Security. Only through such efforts can Pakistan assure its neighbor that it has not accepted a Faustian bargain that adversely affects its sovereignty and independence as well as the durability of neighborly relations with Iran.
Kaveh Afrasiabi has taught at Tehran University and Boston University and is a former consultant to the UN Program on Dialogue Among Civilizations. He is the author of several books on Iran, Islam, and the Middle East, most recently Iran Nuclear Accord and the Remaking of the Middle East (2018) and the co-author of the forthcoming Trump and Iran: Containment to Confrontation.