Managing Expectations

Spearhead Analysis – 24.07.2017

By Xenia Rasul Khan Mahsud
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

Iran-Pak FlagsThe Muslim world it seems is synonymous for divisiveness, antagonism, and exclusionary politics as of late, where the recent crisis between Qatar and its GCC partners exposes its vulnerabilities and incapability to fend off the domination of the West – revealing its own insecurities regarding its position in the world. Somewhere in the folds of this confrontation lies the truth of another regional dynamic on the line, one that is already upset, and could topple over if both countries pick different sides in the Arab fall out.

The regional dynamics are that of South Asia, and the countries are Iran and Pakistan.

While Pakistan has so far adopted a neutral approach in the conflict, one where it’s not willing to comment on who’s at fault, but wants to help reconcile the differences between both countries, and at the same time wishes to help Qatar out with food supplies, it is known for backtracking from principled positions just as Saudi Arabia tugs on its strings; case in point, the parliament’s decision on involvement in the Yemen war.

So what does Pakistan have to lose if it backpedals?

The downside

Pakistan has many reasons not to upset the regional order with Iran more than it is. Firstly, considering the significant supply shortfall of gas in the country, Pakistan has energy considerations since Iran is a potential supplier of natural gas. Likewise, it is also vital that Pakistan shields itself from the regional sectarian war in Syria and Yemen, coming closer to Tehran’s position, away from Saudi Arabia’s, considering the connection of sectarian groups such as Lashkar-i-Jhangvi to anti-state groups like the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan. If it is unable to do so, it would only lend an incidental push to sectarian groups by validating their cause of indulging in warfare or violence based on sectarian differences, and in effect would strengthen the position of anti-state groups given their association; strengthening one would strengthen the other.

One of Iran’s major concerns has been the use of Pakistani territory by sectarian groups to launch attacks across the border – and Pakistan, despite continuous requests and threats, has been unable to control this. In the ongoing dynamics, if Pakistan tilts towards Saudi Arabia, many are of the opinion that the Gulf States could possibly ask Pakistan to permit its territory to be used to support insurgents in Iran. This policy could probably backfire in the way that it has for years. If Iran accuses Pakistan of allowing its territory for subversive activities, Pakistan faults Iran for the same – Kulbhushan Jhadav being a recent example, lending support to Sipah-i-Muhammad Pakistan is another. Therefore, if Islamabad succumbs to the pressure of the Gulf states, it could face a counter blow in Gwadar where Iran could devise a plan to use its population in Balochistan to target Pakistani territories – launching a regional covert war, With a flagrant India on one side, an accusatory Afghanistan on the other, the last thing Islamabad needs right now in the regional order is to be cornered from a third side of its border with full force.

Instead of allowing for this to happen, there is much that Pakistan can do.

First, to address the allegations of providing safe havens to terrorists along the borders – one that Iran, India, and Afghanistan have levied against it. It could also ask Iran to do the same, and indulge in reciprocated cooperation for peace and stability especially in the Sistan-Balochistan region.

Second, Islamabad should also work out a solution to restrict funding from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf Arab states for madressahs and groups that indulge in militant activity along sectarian lines. This will prove to be a policy that will not only improve ties with Iran, as well as the international community, but also the internal security situation of the country. While terror financing comes under the National Action Plan, recent reports state that militants continue to raise funds in Pakistan. Without the implementation of the NAP fully, local financiers will continue to fund violence in the country, let alone foreign ‘investors’ in the business of terror.

Third, instead of partaking in conflicts, tensions, and wars that have nothing to do with its own politics, Pakistan should strive towards reviving itself economically, by looking into integrating Iran into the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. According to Bani Assadi, who pointed out that the current trade between both countries does not match their potentials, he suggested:

“…the business communities in the two countries would have to increase interaction to share their experiences in the larger interests of the people of two brotherly nations”

As of now, Iran is Afghanistan’s largest trading partner, the reason being prolonged and continuous closures of the Chaman and Torkhan border crossings in Pakistan, due to which Afghanistan had to rely on Iran for its exports as opposed to an erratic Pakistan that fails to distinguish between political issues and economic gains. Afghanistan now seeks to use the Chabahar port as opposed to the Karachi port, despite it being closer to Afghanistan.

Instead of Pakistan isolating itself both in political and economic terms, it should revive its ties with Afghanistan and Iran, and divorce its political concerns from its economic aspirations. Instead of narrowing down its affairs to that of a traditional security state, Islamabad should emphasize on cultural commonalities and historical ties between both countries, and encourage interaction on this basis, which will be a stepping stone towards stronger bilateral trade and economic cooperation – and peace and security as a result.

In the wider picture of the Gulf crisis, Pakistan’s current approach seems to be apt – one that steers clear of adopting hard alliances and taking sides, and focuses on its own interests. However, it is vital that Pakistan maintains a balance, and doesn’t upset the Saudis – after all UAE, and Saudi Arabia are both a major source of remittances for Pakistan. With Pakistan’s exports declining as it is, and an economy that is frazzled owing to a hike in public debt, it needs to manage expectations with Saudi Arabia in a way that offers respect but asserts autonomy.

Pakistan must also factor in a broader picture. The US-China rivalry that is influencing US policy towards India and drawing it into the US policies towards Iran and Afghanistan. Pakistan simply cannot afford to let its Balochistan area be used for externally sponsored subversive activities against Iran. Pakistan also wants a cooperative relationship with Afghanistan and must leverage its importance for Afghan stability by addressing US concerns so that the US-Pakistan relationship remains on track not withstanding US concerns on Chinese presence in Gwadar. The US may want a prolonged presence in Afghanistan to give them an advantage in their policies towards both Russia and China The game changing CPEC project needs foreign policy support to create the environment for its success.