Ever since the United States tore up a multilateral deal on Iran’s nuclear programme last year, tensions between the two countries have been on the rise. Soleimani, a prominent commander in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was recently killed in a U.S. drone strike near Baghdad Airport in Iraq. Soleimani was considered to be the architect of Iran’s proxy wars across the Middle East.
The unprecedented move by the Trump administration has unleashed a host of unanticipated consequences that could dramatically alter where the United States operates. Increasingly, the killing appeared to be generating effects that has put the entire region on the cusp of a major conflict. The ongoing events will surely impact a lot of countries which includes Pakistan, sandwiched between the two.
The biggest issue for Pakistan in the fight between the US and Iran is that it has been pushed to take a side, and make a strategic choice on the blind. It knows that with a large Shia population of its own and strained relations with India and Afghanistan, Pakistan cannot afford another war in the region. The government knows that a US-Iran conflict could plunge this country’s security environment into jeopardy.
In the wake of heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran since the killing, Pakistan, Iran’s neighbour, has been trying to stay neutral for the sake of its domestic stability, due to its large minority of Shiite Muslims. Although Shiites are a minority in Pakistan, they are the second-largest Shiite population in the world, behind Iranians. Islamabad recognizes Pakistani Shiites’ affinity for Iran and cannot risk sectarian discontent among the population. To maintain peace at home between Sunnis and Shiites, Pakistan poses to give top priority to nurturing good relations with Iran, even though Islamabad has close relations with Iran’s nemesis Saudi Arabia. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif who was on a two-day visit to Pakistan for consultation with Pakistani leaders on the escalation in tensions between his country and the US and its Arab allies, after his meetings, said he was happy that “Pakistan understands our position and considers US pressure on Iran as unjustified.”
But all this is just a facade built by Pakistan to save its face on a global platform.
Strained Pak- Iran relations
It is a well-known fact that Tehran and Islamabad regularly blame one another for harbouring terrorists and that has led to clear limits to collaboration. Despite promises to boost bilateral trade, trade volumes are still far below their potential. Plans to introduce a ferry link from the port of Gwadar to Chabahar have not materialised, and railway connectivity between Iran and Pakistan is woefully poor. A gas pipeline from Iran to Pakistan has been in the works for decades but remains incomplete. And now, with US sanctions on Iran renewed after Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal last year, and Pakistan currently in need of American backing to secure another IMF loan, Washington has even more leverage than before.
It does not come as a surprise that all statements made by Pakistan to portray that it stands for peace and is making all-out efforts for regional peace are farce. It is infact clear that these sorts of goodwill gestures are merely symbolic and the fact remains that, however affectionate Pakistan may be trying to make its relations with Iran, they are far less concrete than its ties to the US.
Pakistan reaching out to US
Amid the current friction between Tehran and Washington, Islamabad wants to remain neutral and steer clear of a regional conflict. Nevertheless, settling the current crisis is in Islamabad’s interest for several reasons. That is why Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan offered to mediate between Tehran and Washington and instructed Bajwa to visit Iran as well as US to contact relevant military leaders.
Pakistan’s Chief General Bajwa after his talks with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a statement agreeing to his US counterpart that the Iran regime’s actions in the region are destabilizing and their resolve in protecting American interests, personnel, facilities, and partners will not waver, thus shattering all promises made to Iran.
When US also reached out to Pakistan in seeking support for normalising the situation, there was no way that Pakistan would deny any help asked by its financer. Surely it cannot afford to upset the country which provides majority of financial assistance to Pakistan. The United States had already slashed the aid to the cash-strapped nation by nearly USD 440 million, bringing down its commitment to just $4.1 billion last year and that was a pretty big jolt to Pakistan.
Soon after the talks between Bajwa and Pompeo, the US President Donald Trump ordered a resumption of military training to Pakistan, which was suspended in August 2018. The US had cancelled nearly all security assistance to Pakistan in January 2018 after Trump accused it of not doing enough to counter terrorist groups. But soon after the Generals visit to US, the US resumed a segment of military ties as part of its wider West Asia strategy in the aftermath of its assassination of Qassem Soleimani.
Seeing all the above unfold, does it seem like Pakistan will get sucked into a US-Iran Cold War while Islamabad may eventually be forced into choosing sides? The chances of that happening seem far from real as the two-headed snake of Pakistan has already coiled both the countries well in its grip.
Is it possible that Islamabad planned it well in advance and has managed to kill two birds with one stone!! Pakistan which has always blamed Iran’s military commander Major Gen Qassem Soleimani for Baloch militant attacks against its forces, found an opportunity to both remove the powerful Iranian commander from their way as well as win back the confidence of their old friend the US, when Washington sought its support after the airstrikes.
Only time will tell whether Pakistan planned it well or is merely riding on the success of the sheer good luck that it encountered in the form of US killing Qassem Soleimani.
17 Jan 20/Friday Written By: Saima Ibrahim