Iran Should Not Expect Much From Imran Khan’s Pakistan 

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in Islamabad, August 31

by Shireen T. Hunter

Last week Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif was in Islamabad as the first official of a foreign country to visit Pakistan since Imran Khan became prime minister. It has also been reported that Imran Khan will visit Tehran before going to Saudi Arabia. If this happens, it would mark the first time in a very long time that a Pakistani leader has reached out to Iran ahead of the Saudis.

In general, Imran Khan’s victory in the latest Pakistani elections has created great expectations in Tehran about a sharp improvement in relations with Pakistan, after years of tension and mistrust between Tehran and Islamabad. Iran is especially hopeful that the new Pakistani leadership will revitalize a moribund Iran-to-Pakistan gas pipeline project and thus ease Tehran’s financial difficulties. The fact that Pakistan’s relations with the United States have been experiencing some difficulties has increased Tehran’s hopes that Islamabad might turn away from Washington and its regional allies—notably Saudi Arabia but also the UAE—and strike closer relations with Tehran. However, in view of Pakistani-Iranian realities as well as regional and international conditions, Tehran runs the risk of being again disappointed by Islamabad.

It should be noted that this is not the first time that Tehran has been hopeful about closer ties with Islamabad only to see its hopes dashed. In particular, Tehran would be highly mistaken if it thinks that Islamabad would abandon Riyadh for the sake of better ties with Iran, or that it would adopt an anti-American posture. Relations between Islamabad and Washington might have cooled, but Pakistan would not risk unnecessarily antagonizing the United States.

Economic and Financial Realities

There are other factors arguing against a dramatic shift in Pakistan’s positions. One involves Pakistan’s economic conditions and its financial needs. Islamabad is currently seeking a substantial loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Any shift in important aspects of its foreign policy, especially in its relations with the U.S., would make obtaining the IMF’s cooperation much more difficult. Any worsening of relations with Riyadh would also have adverse financial consequences. Strapped as it is for cash, Tehran is no position to compensate Pakistan for any loss of Saudi assistance or IMF help. In this context, Tehran would be wise to look into the history of its relations with Pakistan. The shift in Islamabad’s position from Tehran to Saudi Arabia and other Arab states occurred after the 1973 oil revolution. After that, financial considerations played a key role in cementing Pakistan’s relationships with Arab states. For example, despite all the help that Tehran had given Pakistan during its wars with India, in 1976, during the Organization of Islamic Cooperation Summit held in Lahore, Pakistan refused to disinvite Muammar Gaddafi at the Shah’s request. Thus the Shah did not attend the summit while Gaddafi did. New money trumped old friendships.

In the course of the 1970s and the 1980s, Pakistan’s economic and military relations with Arab states expanded. Today, there are close to 2 million Pakistani workers in Saudi Arabia alone who send home about $5 billion in annual remittances. The number of Pakistanis in the UAE is around 1.2 million and they send home close to $4 billion in remittances. Any attempt by Riyadh to expel these workers or block their remittances as punishment for a potential pro-Iran shift would have serious negative implications for Islamabad.

In addition, since the 1970s, and especially after the Islamic revolution in Iran, Pakistan has developed close military ties to Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf Arab states. Many retired Pakistani officers serve in these countries in various capacities. Thus, it is unlikely that the powerful Pakistani military would jeopardize ties that it has cultivated over the past decades. Similarly, Pakistani political leaders from Benazir Bhutto, to her husband Asif Zardari and children, to Nawaz Sharif have close personal ties to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Even after Imran Khan’s victory, they would have political clout and influence and would limit Imran Khan’s freedom of action.

Cultural Shifts and the Erosion of Iran’s Influence

Cultural shifts in Pakistan as a result of Islamization polices began under Zulfighar Ali Bhutto after Pakistan’s defeat in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War and later accelerated because of growing Saudi/Wahhabi influence during the Soviet-Afghan war. This has led to a degree of Pakistan’s cultural Saudization and Wahhabization. In view of Wahhabism’s strong anti-Shia dimensions and Saudi Arabia’s anti-Iran sentiments this development has also generated strong anti-Iran feelings among significant segments of Pakistani population.

This shift is reflected in the abandonment of the Persian ‘goodbye’, Khoda Hafez, and its replacement with Allah Hafez. In itself, this may be a trivial point, but it symbolizes Pakistan’s Arabization and the abandonment of many of the strongly Persian-influenced Moghul era traditions. Another example is the discouragement of the use of Iqbal’s Persian poetry. In short, over the last fifty years, many of the cultural foundations of close Iran-Pakistan relations have been eroded. Some Pakistanis are not happy with these changes and with Saudi Arabia’s cultural influence. But it is unlikely that they would be able to reverse these cultural shifts.

Competing Geopolitical Interests

Pakistan also has competing interests with Iran in many areas, including as a transportation and energy hub. For example, despite denials, Islamabad does not favor the development of Iran’s Chabahar port, because it sees it as a rival for its own Gwadar port, which China is developing. In the past, Islamabad has favored energy transport routes such as Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan (TAPI) to those passing through Iran. Pakistan also would like to see its own ports become the major outlet for Central Asian states.

The two states also compete in Afghanistan and Central Asia. In the 1990s, Pakistani officials, notably General Naseerullah Babar explained the creation of the Taliban partly in terms of blocking Iran in Afghanistan and Central Asia. At the time the United States was anxious about the possibility of Iran getting a foothold in post-Soviet occupation Afghanistan and in Central Asia. Babar promised Washington that he would block Iran in Afghanistan. There is no reason to believe that the new Pakistani government would cede its place in Afghanistan or Central Asia to Iran.

Iran’s Limited Incentives and High Risks

Iran also has little to offer Pakistan in terms of economic and financial help, while cooperation with Tehran involves some real risks for Islamabad. The fact is that, by its misguided and self-defeating foreign policy Iran has put itself in a difficult position and made itself vulnerable to manipulation by its neighbors both great and small. The latest example is the recent regional deal over the Caspian Sea, which has left Iran high and dry.

Under these circumstances, most likely, Pakistan will use the Iran card to get more concessions and advantages from the U.S., Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This is something that all of Iran’s neighbors and even some other countries, like Russia, and now even Europe, have been doing. Iran, meanwhile, having dangerously narrowed its options, in the past 25 years has been making concessions to all of them and putting up with their pressures and insults. As long as Iran is isolated and under sanction, there is no reason that its neighbors should change their approach. The question is, would the hardliners in Tehran finally wake up before it is too late and put Iranian interests first? Don’t count on it.

Shireen Hunter

Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor. Before joining she was director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a program she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 27 books and monographs. Her latest book is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.



  1. Thank you Mrs Regime Change Hunter for warning the Islamic Republic as you often do when you see a rapprochement between Iran and one of its neighbors. Iran needs your expertise from Washington to learn more about Pakistan.

  2. Ms Shireen Hunter please pay more attention to the current events! In light of Trump stopping the US assistance of $300M/yr to Pakistan this week, Pakistan needs and expects more assistance from their good neighbor Iran than the other way around! Securing the border would the only thing that Iran will expect from Pakistan. Do you think that the corrupt security apparatus in Pakistan would be able to deliver that much?

  3. Abolishment of khuda hafiz??discouraging iqbal persion poetry??are u for real..where do get this misinformation..pakistan is one of the only few islamic countries that have relatively harmonious relation between shias and others..and hopefully it will improve furhter

  4. The author’s ‘wishes’ are mentioned as facts. The fact is that a better relation between the neighbors will serve both while not in benefit of the US that wants chaos in the region.

  5. Of course an informative piece by author regarding the cooperation between US and Pakistan for creation of Taliban, “General Naseerullah Babar explained the creation of the Taliban partly in terms of blocking Iran in Afghanistan and Central Asia. At the time the United States was anxious about the possibility of Iran getting a foothold in post-Soviet occupation Afghanistan and in Central Asia. Babar promised Washington that he would block Iran in Afghanistan.”

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