Spearhead Analysis – 03.04.2017
By Shirin Naseer
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research
In an interview to a local news channel, Pakistan’s defense minister Khawaja Asif confirmed: Pakistan may be sending its military troops to Saudi Arabia’s southern border to protect the Kingdom from Houthi militias leading Yemen’s minority Shia political groups. Pakistan’s military however will not be used beyond Saudi borders.
This media report came shortly after Khawaja Asif himself was quoted categorically denying any such rumors and reports on Pakistan’s plan to deploy its troops on the Saudi border. He was seen vehemently reaffirming Pakistan’s “neutrality” in the Yemen conflict, until his interview on March 15.
A Saudi-led military coalition has been working to reinstate the Riyadh-allied government in Yemen since 2015. The Shia Houthi rebels, an Iran-supported militia from northern Yemen, control large parts of Yemen, including the capital Sana’a—which has raised Saudi fears regarding an expanding Iranian influence in the region.
Initially, Islamabad refused to concede to Riyadh’s demands; Pakistan’s parliament unanimously passed a resolution upholding the country’s “neutrality” in the Yemen conflict.
Pakistan found itself in the cross hairs of Middle Eastern politics when Saudi Arabia named it as part of the newly formed military alliance, without first getting its consent. Once Pakistan rather reluctantly joined the alliance, senior Foreign Office officials reiterated that, “Pakistan will not support any move that destabilizes Syria or strains Islamabad’s relationship with Iran”.
Recently, Pakistan’s former army chief, General Raheel Sharif was appointed as leader of the Saudi-led 34-nation Islamic military coalition. General Raheel has reportedly told his Saudi counterparts that he would seek to involve Iran in the alliance. However, bearing in mind Saudi conditions for a possible reconciliation with Iran this seems highly unlikely.
The government’s decision to discuss the deployment of troops and have General Raheel lead the coalition has come at a time when the Foreign Office is seeking to abandon its four decades old foreign policy approach– one where out of the two rivals, Pakistan’s preferred ally was Saudi Arabia.
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor has changed Pakistan’s economic circumstances drastically. Before, Pakistan did not have the economic ability to withstand offending Saudi Arabia. However, today with China’s economic and diplomatic support, Pakistan is able to find some distance to step back and rethink its policy options vis-à-vis Tehran and Riyadh. Islamabad realizes Iran’s gas supplies are just as-or perhaps more-important than Saudi Arabia’s oil for the future of energy in Pakistan.
Pakistan’s foreign policy approach is no longer about making a choice between the two regional rivals. The leadership realizes it can choose both– rather, that it should choose both. On the one hand, Pakistan is considering deploying troops to Saudi Arabia. At the same time, Islamabad has shown an understanding of the interests of both Yemen and Iran: exercising its neutrality, the Foreign Office has reached out to the two countries despite their intensely hostile relations with Saudi Arabia— which is a stark break from traditionally practiced policies.
Iran has extended an invitation to Pakistan to join the Chabahar port project– to which there is news of Pakistan considering linking Gwadar with Chabahar. While there are apprehensions regarding the possible competition that Iran’s Chabahar port could give to Gwadar, ambassadors from Iran and Pakistan have said that Gwadar and Chabahar will remain “sister ports”. Iran has also expressed a willingness to join CPEC.
Recently, the president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, attended the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO)’s summit in Islamabad, which was a major milestone in Pakistan’s foreign policy. In a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the ECO summit, the leaderships of both countries reaffirmed their “mutual desire to strengthen bilateral relations”.
The chief of Pakistan’s military, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, met with the Iranian ambassador earlier this month. This meeting opened up new possibilities for enhancing military cooperation between the two neighbors. Historically, Pakistan and Iran have had minimal defense ties due to deep-seated mistrust resulting from their often conflicting alignments in regional and international politics. The relationship has worsened over the years by the presence of groups on the Pakistani side of the border that are known to carry out terrorist activities on the Iranian side. Today, as the leaderships of both countries are discussing ways to increase military cooperation alongside economic, this marks an openness and willingness to trust in the bilateral relationship that has not been there before.
Perhaps Beijing’s newfound interest in Iran has also been a motivation for Pakistan to reexamine its bilateral relationships with Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Presently, China has a growing need for energy, for which it requires a healthy relationship with Iran—the producer of the world’s second largest gas reserves. In January of last year Iran and China agreed to increase bilateral trade to $600 billion over the next 10 years. China is working to expand both its financial and diplomatic engagement with Iran. Beijing wants to link Pakistan-Iran gas pipeline to the One Belt, One Road series of infrastructure projects through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor–- thereby, allowing China direct access to Tehran’s gas supplies.
As the geopolitical landscape is rapidly changing, reviewing previous policy positions is an understandably pragmatic step for Pakistan—cooperation with both Riyadh and Tehran is important. In this context, Saudi Arabia’s growing closeness with India is something to look out for; the two countries are eager to deepen the bilateral relationship and enhance cooperation in the production of defense hardware. Several analysts view Chabahar as an extension of India’s efforts to counter CPEC. Tehran is set to increase its geopolitical significance with Chabahar. Chabahar may also threaten Pakistan’s monopoly over regional transit routes. Pakistan, being home to the world’s largest Shiite minority, should also be concerned about the potential for domestic fallout from the fighting in Yemen.
Pakistan is caught in the middle of a Saudi Arabia-Iran conflict. So far it is doing well by reaching out to Saudi Arabia, UAE and Iran. The major foreign policy challenge for Islamabad will be finding a decisive balance between its relationship with Riyadh, and Tehran. Surely, this will be no easy task.