Can Pakistan Play Iran-Saudi Peacemaker?

Imran Khan at a 2016 press conference (Jahanzaib Naiyyer / Shutterstock.com)Imran Khan at a 2016 press conference (Jahanzaib Naiyyer / Shutterstock.com)

by Fatemeh Aman

With new Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan having taken office on August 18, Iran is attempting to reset its relationship with its eastern neighbor. Iran was one of the first countries to congratulate Khan. It staged an unprecedented celebration of Pakistan’s Independence Day. And it welcomed Khan’s statement about improving relations among “all Middle Eastern brothers.”

Is Iran hoping that Pakistan can mediate relations with Saudi Arabia?

In a speech after his electoral victory, Khan said: “Our aim will be that whatever we can do for conciliation in the Middle East, we want to play that role.” And in an August 4 meeting with Mehdi Honardoost, Iran’s ambassador to Pakistan, Khan expressed a willingness to “play a constructive and positive role between Iran and Saudi Arabia,” and promised to visit both countries after starting his new job.

Pakistan could benefit from improved Iran-Saudi relations. It needs to have a peaceful relationship with Iran, its neighbor in a volatile region, and it needs Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other Gulf Cooperation Council countries for their billions of dollars in remittances that are a key part of the Pakistani economy. The Gulf states have also been providing Pakistan with energy and financial support at times of trouble, including when the United States sanctioned Pakistan after its nuclear tests in 1998.

With Pakistan’s much-needed $12 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund in limbo and facing US opposition, the Islamic Development Bank based in Jeddah is giving Pakistan a $4.5 billion dollar loan. Iran can’t compete with this kind of generosity.

In recent years, however, Pakistan’s relationships with both Iran and the Saudis have faced challenges. Tensions arose between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia when Pakistan refused to be part of the coalition fighting in Yemen. Even though the Pakistani constitution gives the prime minister the authority to deploy troops, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif sent the matter to parliament where lawmakers rejected it. That, of course, upset Pakistan’s Arab friends, which is not an easy matter for Pakistan.

Iran expressed dissatisfaction last year when the Saudis appointed Pakistan’s former army chief, General Raheel Sharif, to lead the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT). Formed in 2015 and headquartered in Saudi Arabia, IMAFT consists of over 40 mainly Sunni-dominated countries. One of the main opponents of the IMAFT idea was Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) party. Citing the divide between Pakistani Sunni and Shia, PTI spokesman Fawwad Chaudhry said, “Our Shia brothers have already been targeted in this country and this decision will intensify the sense of insecurity prevailing among them.” Khan has assigned Shireen Mazari, member of the National Assembly of Pakistan since August 2018 and chief whip for Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, and two others to prepare for the upcoming IMAFT discussion in the National Assembly.

Reviving the Peace Pipeline 

Iran is also hoping to revive the “peace pipeline” that was originally planned to transfer Iran’s gas to energy-hungry Pakistan. The project faded away due to U.S. sanctions on Iran and U.S. pressure on Pakistan. Although recognizing Pakistan’s growing need for energy, The Obama administration warned Pakistan “to avoid any sanctionable activity.”

The pipeline starts in the South Pars gas field in Iran’s southern city of Asalouyeh and then passes through Bandar Abbas and several cities in Sistan-Baluchistan province. The pipeline was intended to reach Khuzdar in Pakistan’s Baluchistan. From there it would continue to Karachi. When originally proposed in 1994, the project was to include India. But India opted out for fear of violating international sanctions against Iran.

Iran finished the part of the pipeline in its territory to the Pakistani border. When Pakistan claimed insufficient funds to complete its portion of the project, the government of former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad offered Islamabad $500 million to build the pipeline in Pakistan territory. The government of Hassan Rouhani then rescinded the pledge, and China stepped in to offer the necessary funds. The pipeline, if it had gone forward, could have supplied Pakistan’s growing energy needs. Nevertheless, several of Iran’s most deprived regions received much needed gas as a side effect of the project.

Both countries share concerns over Balochistan, a region that straddles their border and is prone to tension and insurgency. This has kept ethnic and sectarian tension between Tehran and Islamabad relatively low. Iranian officials, however, believe that elements within Pakistani intelligence may have supported militant Sunni groups such as Jundollah, with help from Saudi Arabia.

In regard to Shias in Pakistan and the frequent violence they face from Sunni militants, Iran has limited its support to expressing sympathy but not meddling actively. Iran did not provide broad support to Pakistani Shia sin part because they are diverse, well integrated into Pakistan’s society, and many members of that community do not support Iran’s model of theocratic rule.

What about Khan?

Unlike many Pakistani politicians, Imran Khan did not rise to power backed by family connections and has not been directly charged with corruption. The Pakistani military’s backing of Khan, however, has left room for speculation that the election was rigged or that he can’t act independently in putting together his government. Moreover, the links between Khan and some politicians backed by Sunni extremist groups alarmed many in the region who fear an intensification of the repression of Shiites by (possibly Saudi-backed) Sunni militants. Such an intensification could trigger a response from Iran, which so far has limited its outreach Shiites to “cultural” support. Candidates who were directly backed by extremist groups did very poorly in the July 25 election, which comes as good news for Khan’s mainstream supporters.

It is too early to assess Khan’s ability to bring Saudi Arabia and Iran together. After all, the animosity between the two countries is not just a foreign policy challenge but also a reflection of internal rifts within both countries. In Iran, for instance, it has been created by hardliners whose existence depends on both foreign and domestic crises. In Saudi Arabia, repairing Iran-Saudi relations might be much more difficult given Riyadh’s policies over the years toward Iran. However, Khan might be able to ease tension if not completely resolve the differences.

It is hard to imagine how Pakistan can function without its Arab allies. But it’s certainly conceivable that Pakistan could play a constructive role in bringing the parties together. When it comes to enhancing its own security, Pakistan needs all the friends it can get and would benefit greatly from improved relationships with—and between—its neighbors.

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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).

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