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Pakistan’s Middle East Policy: Striking a balance between Iran and Saudi Arabia

Pakistan’s Middle East Policy: Striking a balance between Iran and Saudi Arabia

Is it possible for Pakistan to strike a balance between ties with Saudi Arabia and Iran? The answer is Yes. Former Ambassador Masood Khan explains how..

By Masood Khan

The essence of President Hassan Rohani’s visit to Islamabad was bilateral relations between Pakistan and Iran but the strategic overhang of the visit was no less important.

Post-nuclear deal with six Western countries, sanctions on Iran have been lifted. This has opened new opportunities for completing the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, increasing bilateral trade, and explore economic partnerships. A lot was accomplished during President Rohani’s visit.

Central banks of the two countries have established mechanisms for smooth transactions between traders and entrepreneurs. Traders can use formal banking channels for exports and imports in Euro. A Five-Year Strategic Trade Cooperation Plan should enable the two to increase their trade to $5 billion from currently dismally low levels. We need Iranian oil, gas, steel, iron, and petroleum products. Our textiles, surgical instruments, sports goods and agricultural products have demand in Iranian markets. A free trade agreement would be pushed. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced that Pakistan would open two new border crossings on Pakistan-Iran border. Many new avenues of cooperation have opened up: import of Iranian electricity up to 3,000 MW, seaborne trade between Chahbahar and Gwadar ports, industrial zones and petrochemical storage along the borders.

These budding economic partnerships must take off because Pakistan and Iran, with large economies and markets, are next door neighbors and are bound by strong cultural, religious and ethnic ties. There is a natural complementarity that should be allowed to grow to its full potential.

We know that the Pakistan-Iran relationship will not grow at the expense of Pakistan-Saudi Arabia ties. Saudi Arabia is a long-standing ally of Pakistan and has steadfastly stood by Pakistan. In fact, Pakistan does not want strategic competition or confrontation between these two major Middle Eastern countries because that is not good for them and that hurts Pakistan. Is it possible for Pakistan to strike a balance between these two relationships? Yes, it is. We demonstrated it last year by recusing ourselves from sending our troops for the Saudi-led operations in Yemen. This decision had costs but the costs would have been heavier if we had sent the troops.

Some efforts are afoot to stabilize the Middle East. The forecast for the future scenario is not encouraging. The old order is disintegrating; the new order has not emerged yet. The region is in flux. Instead of embracing modernity and technological revolution, the region is hurtling back to primitive beliefs and conflicts, as their proponents pursue their murderous campaigns. The fallout is not contained in the region. It is absolutely imperative for us that we steer clear of these internecine conflicts and sectarian schism. The not too dormant fault lines can erupt any time if we take a partisan stance.

President Rohani, talking to intellectuals and scholars last Saturday in Islamabad, lamented that Israel was secure in the region while Muslims were killing one another in the name of sects and ideologies. He reminded his audience that Muslims are one Ummah as they were during the period of Prophet (PBUH) and said that nobody asks if Saadi or Iqbal were Sunni or Shia. Their message was inspiring and moving. Yet we know that the strife in the Middle East would continue and, therefore, Pakistan should continue to consistently pursue its equidistant and impartial policy.

The arrest of the Indian agent Kulbhushan Yadav, on the eve of President Rohani’s visit, may well be a sheer coincidence. Iran should heed Pakistan’s request for cracking down on the India espionage network abusing the Iranian soil to destabilize Pakistan. Iran has a tight control over its territory and, therefore, it would not be difficult for its authorities to track down and dismantle this network. This would also help the two countries to fight the menace of terrorism together. It is far more difficult in Afghanistan where India is using ungoverned spaces to plot and execute subversive operations against Pakistan.

Finally, Iran is very much part of China’s grand One Belt One Road initiative. The Belt’s westward meandering corridor would pass through Iran before heading towards Turkey and Europe. It is in our interest to lock in Iran’s participation in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, because this project, by its very definition, is transnational and cross-regional in order to maximum impact. During the Iranian President’s visit, the two sides explored the possibility of collaboration in infrastructure development and energy projects. A CPEC-based partnership between the two countries will further cement their ties.

The author Masood Khan is a career diplomat who has been recently appointed as the Director General of the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad

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