Regional dynamics and strategic concerns of Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia

By Ammar Younas

There are different rumors that the Pakistan’s New Prime Minister Imran Khan has visited Saudi Arabia to seek Saudi help for stabilizing Pakistan’s economy. Pakistan urgently needs more than $10 billion to avoid a further loan from IMF. At this point when EU has supported Iran against US will by continuing its trade and UN Security Council has denied approving further sanctions on Iran, the role of Pakistan has become more important for Saudi Arabia. When Iran is going towards economic stability and getting more and more support from international community against USA, Saudi Arabia needs Pakistan to be on its side. Both Tehran and Riyadh have a long history of rivalry to keep Pakistan on their side. Whereas Pakistan’s new Prime Minister and Army Chief , both have made Pakistan’s position very clear that Pakistan will always support Saudi Arabia but without compromising its relationship with Iran.

Since the Saudi-led alliance started fight against Houthi rebels in Yemen, Pakistan has been under immense pressure from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) for military support in the region. Since then, Former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif had chaired several high-level meetings with civil and military officials to determine Pakistan’s involvement in the conflict. While the government had clearly stated it would defend Saudi Arabia’s “territorial integrity,” it is yet to commit troops and resources to the Saudi-led offensive in Yemen. The reason was quite simple that Pakistan had too much to deal with its own internal conflict ranging from Karachi to the bordering areas with Afghanistan in the North. Moreover, Pakistani army would never go against the will of Shia population of Pakistan. Pakistan was simply not in position to join hands with Saudi Arabia to fight in Yemen.

Later on, Saudi Arabia formed a military coalition of Muslim countries – including powers such as Egypt and Turkey – to coordinate a fight against “terrorist organizations”. Surprisingly, the Former Military chief of Pakistan Gen Raheel Sharif was appointed the leader of this military alliance. The aim of this 41-nation armed coalition was to provide a platform for military cooperation among Muslims countries for fighting against terrorism, by sharing military expertise and by involving religious scholars to propose a counter-terrorism narrative. After two years, we cannot see any significant activity done by this coalition.

Last year on many occasions, US has accused Pakistan of playing a ‘double game’ on fighting terrorism. The reality is that US is imperial overstretched which means that US has already extended itself beyond its ability to maintain or expand its military and economic commitments. Moreover, it has utilized all the available diplomatic tactics and instruments. Its military doctrines are well exposed and well understood by other rivalry states. The US and its NATO allies have been fighting the Taliban since 2001, but victory has eluded them. Donald Trump questioned American aims in Afghanistan during the 2016 election campaign and his commitment remains in doubt. After a tough internal debate, Gen John Nicholson, the US commander in Afghanistan, persuaded Trump to deploy an additional 3,000 troops, taking the total to about 14,000. Trump knows very well that it is impossible for US to simply run from Afghanistan that is why, he wants to put all the burden of US failure on Pakistan by painting a bad image of it.

For more than a decade, the CIA has accused Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence of playing a double game in which it pledges to destroy the Afghan Taliban, but protects its fighters, which it views as a useful proxy to destabilize the Kabul government. The issue has as much to do with geo-politics as counter terrorism. Pakistan military regard the country’s chief strategic threat as coming from an Indian-backed government in Kabul completing a hostile encirclement of Pakistan.

But instead of involving him in blame game, the Army Chief of Pakistan, General Qamar Bajwa has decided to take some practical steps of pragmatic importance. Pakistan is building a fence along the whole Pak-Afghan border. Pakistan says that almost 92 per cent of its 2,611-kilometer largely porous border with Afghanistan will be fenced by end of 2018, hoping the massive unilateral undertaking will effectively address mutual complaints of militant incursions. Besides a fence, 11,136 border posts and 443 forts are being installed on the Pakistani side – seven times more than on the Afghan side. After the completion of fence, it will be impossible for militants to infiltrate the Pakistan. Pakistan is spending $550 million on a fence along its border with Afghanistan which demonstrates Pakistan’s seriousness with its internal security and it is more than $500 million investment of its rival India on Iranian Chabahar port.

Afghanistan, India and US are busy in propaganda that Pakistan has been isolated but in reality, Pakistan has set its own priority that is to focus on its own internal security and domestic issues. China Pakistan Economic Corridor has become functional which is a $62 billion project to rapidly modernize Pakistani infrastructure and strengthen its economy by the construction of modern transportation networks, numerous energy projects, and special economic zones. On his recent visit to Pakistan, Chinese foreign minister has said that Pakistan will always be a priority for China in its foreign policy. International community must stay informed that Pakistan to China is what Israel to America.

Last year in November, Pakistan’s chief of army staff, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa visited Iran and expressed its interest in learning from Iran’s Basij Organization. Basij Organization was formed by the order of Ayatollah Khomeini. It consists of civilian volunteers who were urged by Khomeini to fight in the Iran–Iraq War.

It seems that Pakistan is trying to avoid the rare happening of mistrust among Pakistan-Iran relations. On the other hand, I think that Pakistan is finding an excuse for not joining any proposed future alliance against Iran, Yemen or Lebanon.

I think that the visit of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan to Saudi Arabia will not impact on Pakistan- Iran relations because of the simple reason that Pakistan has too many internal issues to deal with. The tendency towards confirmation bias that this time Pakistan will act differently by the fact that Pakistan’s army is the key player in forming the country’s domestic and foreign policy. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had very close and personal relations with Saudi Royal Family. That is the reason that Pakistani parliament especially former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took too much time before clearing its position on Yemen in 2015. After the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif by Supreme Court in Panama verdict, visit of Pakistan’s Army Chief to Iran was a clear message to Saudi Arabia including Israel that Pakistan will remain neutral in upcoming Saudi aggressions against Shias in Iran or Lebanon as it remained in the case of Yemen. Pakistan effectively dodged Saudi Arabia in Qatar crisis as well. Besides giving credibility to Pakistan’s policy of neutrality in the Middle East, the visit of Imran Khan is a clear message to international community that Pakistan always have other options available including an alliance with Iran and Saudi Arabia where Pakistan can act as a mediator. Moreover, If Saudis and Israelis have to flex their muscles against Shias in Iran, Yemen or Lebanon, they should not look towards Pakistan for any support. Pakistan will stay friend with both Saudi Arabi and Iran and will not support any of these in their hostilities against each other.

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Ammar Younas

Ammar Younas is a Visiting Professor at the Faculty of Private Law in Tashkent State University of Law Uzbekistan. He is an ANSO scholar at School of Humanities, University of Chinese Academy of Sciences. He studied Chinese Law as Chinese Government Scholar at Tsinghua University School of Law in Beijing, China. Ammar also holds degrees in Medicine, Jurisprudence, Finance, Political Marketing, International and Comparative Politics and Human Rights from Kyrgyzstan, Italy, and Lebanon. His research interests include but not limited to Societal Impact of Artificial Intelligence (AI), Regulation of AI & Emerging Technologies, Human Rights, Medical Law and Central Asian Law.

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