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