The West needs Pakistan to break the Saudi-Iranian polarization of the Persian Gulf

By Behrooz Ayaz and Dr. Julian Spencer-Churchill

Pakistan is a neglected democratic ally of the West, and possesses a sophisticated foreign policy that has allowed it to navigate the mutually hostile relations between the US, China, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. It is a strategically located adjacent to the vital Persian Gulf region equipped with an experienced diplomatic apparatus. The main lesson of the failed Western deterrence of the Russian attack on Ukraine, is that allies need to be cultivated before rather than after a conflict erupts. As a comparison of magnitude, there are more Pakistanis than all of the Russians, Belarussians, and Ukrainians, and their descendants in the world, summed together.

The likelihood of a China-US war over Taiwan will increase as the two states approach a power transition in the next decade. Nationalist regimes like Bismarckian Germany in 1870, Wilhelmine Germany in the First World War, and Imperial Japan during the Second World War, typically relied on strategic surprise and hopes for a quick conquest, to offset their smaller offensive alliances compared with the larger democratic coalitions they oppose. Democracies, less bound by exclusionary nationalist policies, more easily form overwhelmingly large coalitions, and generally win their wars that way, but it takes months and years for their alliances to form. The US joined the First and Second Word Warsthree years after their outbreak, and Brazil joined the latter conflict in August of 1942. Totalitarian China is burdened with a very loose coalition: it is unclear if North Korea, Iran, Myanmar, Pakistan, or Russia would support China in a war over Taiwan. They are bound at best by common interest: the legitimacy of North Korea is threatened by South Korea, Pakistan fears further dismemberment by India, and Moscow blames Western influence for instigating the emergence of a liberal civil society in Russia. However, most of these states share a common border with China, so it is unclear to what extent these countries would benefit from a Beijing weakened by war. Russia, for example, has a significant territorial dispute with China in the Amur region of the Far East.

An important reason for the democratic West to engage Pakistan, is to loosen as much as possible China’s coalition of allies, including Beijing’s friendly relations with Iran. One of the critical chokepoints of the Second World War was the Straits of Gibraltar, which controlled access to the Western Mediterranean, a vital sea lane. Had fascist Spain not been neutralized as a German ally by Anglo-American diplomatic efforts, the Nazis would have seized Gibraltar, and the Second World War possibly lost. Axis isolation of the Mediterranean would have led to the collapse of Allied resistance in the oilfields of Baku and Persia. Both Iran’s and Pakistan‘s littoral sits astride the Straits of Hormuz, whose control of the energy shipments in the Persian Gulf was vital during the Cold War and will again be so in a Western conflict with China over Taiwan. Iran is currently irredeemably lost to Western diplomacy, but not to Pakistan, which has both strategic proximity, which India does not, and a web of shared interests.

On the one hand, Pakistan is sanguine about positive relations with Iran. Immediately after the formation of the new coalition government of the Muslim League and People’s Party in Islamabad, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif announced his visit to Saudi Arabia. This was immediately followed by Pakistan’s invitation of Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi, demonstrating Pakistan’s independent strength and policy of active balance between the two adversaries. The principal policy driver, according to former Pakistan ambassador to Washington  Abida Hussain,  is that Islamabad seeks to diversify its energy dependence between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and has held joint military maneuvers with Tehran to those ends. US$700 million of Pakistan’s US$1.8 billion imports from Saudi Arabia consists of oil.

Pakistan has also engaged with Iran to counterbalance Indian influence in Tehran, as well as address the insecurity along their common border. Iran accuses Pakistan of negligently failing to interdict the damaging transhipment of Afghan opium, and it has conducted mortar attacks into Pakistan to those ends. Pakistani officials accuse Iran of harbouring separatist leaders of the Balochistan Liberation Army, which  killed 17 Pakistani soldiers in an attack in late January 2022, and killed four Chinese academics on April 27, 2022. Pakistan is furthermore trying to manage domestic Sunni-Shia sectarian violence. The funding of Deobandi schools by Saudi Arabia since the 1970s, led to the diffusion of Wahhabist  anti-Shia orthodoxy. Given impetus by the wars in Afghanistan and Kashmir, this led to large-scale violence against Shia communities by such groups as Sipah-e-Sahaba. The potential for further sectarian escalation is driven by the repatriation from Syria to Pakistan, of the Iranian trained Shia militants of the Zainabion Brigade.

Saudi Arabia’s economic influence is considerable, with 2.6 million Pakistani labour forces accounting for between US4.5 to 6 billion in annual remittances, and Riyadh punitively cut financial aid to the previous government of Prime Minister Imran Khan in response to his improvement of relations with Tehran. Nevertheless, alternate sources of finance from the West and China, enabled Islamabad to refuse joining Saudi Arabia’s counter-terrorism coalition in support of its war against Yemen.

There are compelling Western human rights interests, and allies, in particular Israel and Saudi Arabia, who oppose closer relations with Iran. While there are also valid historical reasons for the unreliability of seeking alliances with authoritarian states, nudging states towards neutrality is a vital function of diplomacy. However, the policy of seeking to depolarize China’s coalition before an offensive war over Taiwan, plays to Western alliance advantages, weakens China, improves the effectiveness of deterrence, and thereby reduces the likelihood of war over Taiwan.

Re-energizing Western engagement with Pakistan, particularly through its democratic civil society, has its own intrinsic benefits of limiting China’s influence in the military bureaucracy. China’s greater attentiveness to Pakistan’s concerns with India, as well as its assistance in the provision of the technology to assemble aircraft, missiles, tanks and nuclear weapons, makes it an influential ally. However, China has little understanding or influence over the electoral process in Pakistan, and even less familiarity with the complex sectarian social movements influenced by Saudi Arabia and Iran. Pakistan’s armed forces leadership is also keenly aware of the importance of maintaining intelligence and military contacts with Western countries, in particular the US and UK. The velvet glove of interacting with the global community is likely to be more effective than military threats from New Delhi in the event of a US-China war over Taiwan. Rather than provoking India, deeper engagement with Pakistan will permit Western governments, particularly the US, to help deescalate crises that do occasionally erupt in South Asia, especially over Kashmir.

Polarizing Iranian-Saudi security competition in the Persian Gulf plays relatively more to China’s benefit, since Beijing is a revisionist power that is inflicting costs on the status quo defenders of the continuing flow of energy. China is far more dependent on Saudi rather than Iranian oil, along with India and Europe, but Iran has closer relations with Beijing and is the strongest military power in the Persian Gulf. By deepening relations with Tehran, Islamabad will be able to demonstrate to Iran that the latter is, by comparison, relatively weaker and poorer by almost every dimension of power. Pakistan’s diplomatic proximity and skilful balancing of Saudi, Chinese, and Western interests makes it an important instrument of influence to ensure China does not take advantage of the bi-polarization of relations in the Persian Gulf.   

Dr. Julian Spencer-Churchill is associate professor of international relations at Concordia University, and author of Militarization and War (2007) and of Strategic Nuclear Sharing (2014). He has completed research contracts at the Office of Treaty Verification at the Office of the Secretary of the Navy, and the then Ballistic Missile Defense Office (BMDO). He is a former army engineer officer of 3 Field Engineer Regiment.

Behrouz Ayaz is an Iranian political analyst who specializes in foreign policy of Iran, Afghanistan, South Asia and Terrorism. He graduated from Tarbiat Modares university with a Master of Art’s degree in International Relations. He is currently cooperating with SCFR (Strategic Council on Foreign Relations). Ayaz has written the book as a Collection of Papers with accomplished professors “The Nature, Dimensions, and Future of ISIS”, and has published scientific articles, essays and Op-Eds related his expertise.

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