A Bal­anc­ing Act

Pak­istan is in a unique po­si­tion to build bridges be­tween Iran and Saudi Ara­bia.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By S.G. Ji­la­nee

Was Nawaz Sharif’s Tehran visit an ef­fort to main­tain a bal­ance be­tween Pak­istan’s ties with Iran and Saudi Ara­bia?

Pak­istan’s Prime Min­is­ter Nawaz Sharif’s two-day of­fi­cial visit to Tehran was well-timed since ties be­tween the two coun­tries have suf­fered some shocks in re­cent months. First, the multi-bil­lion dol­lar pipe­line re­mains in the dol­drums leading Iran to ques­tion Pak­istan’s sin­cer­ity to­wards the project. An­other jolt was in­flicted by the ab­duc­tion of five Ira­nian bor­der guards al­legedly by mil­i­tants from Pak­istan in Fe­bru­ary. The sit­u­a­tion be­came so grave that Iran threat­ened to send its own forces across the bor­der into Balochis­tan in a bid to re­cover the soldiers. Dam­age con­trol was, there­fore, the need of the mo­ment.

“I am here to open a new page in Pak-Iran re­la­tion­ship,” said Nawaz Sharif af­ter his meet­ing with Ira­nian

Pres­i­dent Hasan Rouhani. And, as proof, he pointed to his fi­nance, petroleum and in­te­rior teams that ac­com­pa­nied him with the aim to re­solve all the mat­ters that were cre­at­ing ob­sta­cles in the com­ple­tion of the Iran-Pak­istan gas pipe­line project which, the two lead­ers agreed, was ben­e­fi­cial for the people of both coun­tries.

Pak­istan and Iran signed eight agree­ments and MoUs aimed at pro­mot­ing bi­lat­eral trade and ex­pand­ing it to $5 bil­lion an­nu­ally, ex­tra­di­tion of crim­i­nals and es­tab­lish­ing of a joint bor­der com­mis­sion in or­der to thwart “en­emy con­spir­a­cies in the garb of petty crim­i­nal ac­tiv­i­ties on the borders.”

An­other agree­ment was signed on the ex­tra­di­tion of pris­on­ers by the two coun­tries. The agree­ment was en­dorsed by Iran's Jus­tice Min­is­ter Mostafa Pourmohammadi and Prime Min­is­ter Nawaz Sharif’s Se­nior Ad­viser for Na­tional Se­cu­rity and For­eign Af­fairs, Sar­taj Aziz.

One of Nawaz Sharif’s main achieve­ments was to ob­tain a waiver from the Ira­nian govern­ment of the con­di­tion in the Pak­istan-Iran gas pipe­line agree­ment that binds Is­lam­abad to pay a monthly penalty of $200 mil­lion in case of de­lay in the con­struc­tion of the pipe­line by De­cem­ber 31, 2014.

Sharif was stat­ing the ob­vi­ous when he said: “Pak­istan-Iran re­la­tions are bound by his­tor­i­cal and re­li­gious link­ages,” or when he re­as­sured his Ira­nian hosts that Pak­istan would not al­low its friend­ship with other coun­tries in the Gulf States “to come in the way of the de­vel­op­ment of friendly re­la­tions with Iran.”

The link­ages with Iran are not only his­tor­i­cal and re­li­gious, but also cul­tural. In the sev­en­teenth century, Iran gave sanc­tu­ary to Em­peror Hu­mayun when he fled to Iran af­ter his de­feat by Sher Shah, and later as­sisted him in re­gain­ing his throne. Per­sian was the court lan­guage of In­dia un­der the Moguls up to the nine­teenth century. Be­sides, Iran and Pak­istan share a com­mon bor­der. They can there­fore also play a use­ful role in Afghanistan’s sta­bil­ity af­ter the with­drawal of for­eign troops from there at the end of the cur­rent year.

By com­par­i­son, Pak­istan’s friend­ship with the United States and Saudi Ara­bia is re­cent. And, in­ci­den­tally, both are anti-Iran. That was why Iran’s supreme spir­i­tual leader, Ali Khamenei cau­tioned Nawaz Sharif, say­ing, "There are hands at work that in­tend to cause dif­fer­ences be­tween the two friendly and in­ti­mate na­tions through dif­fer­ent meth­ods, in­clud­ing stir­ring in­se­cu­rity at the lengthy com­mon borders. We shouldn't al­low the big op­por­tu­nity ex­ist­ing for the ex­pan­sion of the re­la­tions be­tween the two coun­tries to be lost."

Khamenei went on to say that, "The U.S. is among the coun­tries who are at­tempt­ing to cre­ate rift be­tween Iran and Pak­istan." With­out nam­ing names, he also warned about “some other gov­ern­ments as well that are do­ing the same and ad­vised that "we should not be trapped by such states." This was an ob­vi­ous ref­er­ence to Saudi Ara­bia, whose king was men­tioned in the

Nawaz Sharif, ow­ing to his per­sonal ties with the House of Saud, en­joys a unique po­si­tion to as­sist both Iran and Saudi Ara­bia in re­mov­ing dis­trust and forg­ing bet­ter re­la­tions be­tween the two coun­tries.

Wik­ileaks ca­bles to have called Iran a snake whose head must be crushed.

But Saudi Ara­bia has show­ered im­mense boun­ties on Pak­istan over the years; the lat­est be­ing the free gift of a whop­ping $1.5 bil­lion. It has come to Pak­istan’s as­sis­tance fi­nan­cially at some dire mo­ments and, on oc­ca­sions, even me­di­ated be­tween con­flict­ing par­ties to pro­mote po­lit­i­cal sta­bil­ity in Pak­istan, such as bail­ing out Nawaz Sharif when he was over­thrown and con­victed for pre­vent­ing the plane car­ry­ing Gen. Pervez Mushar­raf to land in Pak­istan. Riyadh had then taken the en­tire Sharif fam­ily as its guests.

Saudi Ara­bia has not aired its re­ac­tion to Nawaz Sharif’s Iran visit. How­ever, it may not be averse to the move. There is a size­able num­ber of Shias in Saudi Ara­bia and other Gulf States. They draw in­spi­ra­tion from Iran. In Bahrain some time ago, they rose in vi­o­lent protest against the govern­ment and had to be put down with the help of Saudi and Bahraini troops.

Af­ter the Is­lamic revo­lu­tion in Iran un­der Imam Khu­maini, the Arab states lit­er­ally feared that Iran would ex­port its revo­lu­tion to the Arab coun­tries. How­ever, that did not hap­pen. But sus­pi­cion lingers. There­fore, they would wel­come any move that re­as­sures them about Iran’s bona fides. In fact, good­will be­tween Iran and the Arab coun­tries, in­clud­ing the Gulf States and Saudi Ara­bia, is nec­es­sary for peace in the re­gion.

There­fore, Nawaz Sharif, ow­ing to his per­sonal ties with the House of Saud, en­joys a unique po­si­tion to as­sist both Iran and Saudi Ara­bia in re­mov­ing dis­trust and forg­ing bet­ter re­la­tions be­tween the two coun­tries. No won­der that Sar­taj Aziz told the Se­nate For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee in his brief­ing that the prime min­is­ter’s Tehran visit was a bid to main­tain a bal­ance be­tween Pak­istan’s ties with Iran and Saudi Ara­bia.

The at­tempt would cer­tainly amount to a bal­anc­ing act of a very high cal­iber. It would be an acid test of states­man­ship for Mian Nawaz Sharif that would re­quire him to play his diplo­matic cards most dex­ter­ously. It would also call for the best from his ad­vi­sory team. There would be many ob­sta­cles. Op­po­si­tion from the United States to any progress on the Pak-Iran gas pipe­line would be the fore­most.

How he fares in this ex­er­cise of walk­ing the tight-rope re­mains to be seen. But one thing is cer­tain. If he suc­ceeds, Nawaz Sharif would be shed­ding the stigma of a non­per­former and make a place for him­self in Pak­istan’s his­tory.

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