Changing times
By Ayesha Siddiqa


Can you imagine militant leaders running bakeries or grocery stores because they ran out of jihadi business? This sounds incredulous at the moment but it could happen given the gradually changing geopolitical environment in and around South Asia. The changing Iran-US relations are a significant development. An improvement in Tehran and Washingtonís bilateral relations means better terms between Iran and bulk of the non-Arab world. This could also be a game-changer in our own region and country at several levels.
The West, especially the US, developed tense relations with Iran after the Islamic Revolution in 1979. However, it did not entirely disengage. There was engagement at several levels, which includes the famous Iran-Contra affair in which the US secretly supplied weapons to Iran through Israel. The numerous Iranian migrants to the West also made efforts to explain Iran with all its problems, promises and complexities. Notwithstanding American discomfort with Iranís nuclear programme, Washington was consistently advised by many Iran experts in Americaís larger strategic community of the worth of engagement and conversation. The gradual evolution of Iranís sociopolitical system was also a reminder, especially to the West that not all had been lost due to the Islamic Revolution. There are now American experts who argue that a post-9/11 partnership with Tehran would have been of greater benefit to the US. There is also the realisation that the Islamic Revolution did not entirely destroy the Persian civilisational ethos. The Iranians are not inherently as anti-West as was initially imagined. The combination of the two factors was promising for the future of conducting business with Tehran.
The under-negotiation deal between the US and Iran will possibly be a game-changer for the Middle East and South Asia. While Tehran will compromise on its nuclear weapons-making capacity, it has far more to gain in terms of political influence in the region. It will certainly turn into a more legitimate entity. This will certainly add to the confidence of the Shia population that is spread all across the Middle East, the Gulf and even South Asia. This is a sizeable population, which has suffered brute force in most places. The use of brute force may still happen but with an increased cost of conflict for the states that support it. An Iran that is free from sanctions will have greater political and economic capacity to support and defend such populations, and challenge the status quo as has sometimes happened in the past. Avoiding a never-ending cycle of sectarian conflict in Pakistan was certainly one of the reasons why Islamabad decided against deploying its forces on the Saudi-Yemen border. Such a decision would have sucked it into a fire that may burn from one end of the Middle East to the other unless the Iranian-Saudi problem or sectarian relations within these states are sorted out amicably and politically. In Pakistanís case, it would have to calculate the risk of increased instability in Balochistan, Sindh or even other areas. The idea of deploying jihadi outfits to counter the move will be less popular internationally and result in higher security costs than before. Of course, there were economic considerations as well such as future energy cooperation between Pakistan and Iran that was one of the drivers of this decision. What the Arab states ought to consider is that short-term resource-based clientalism does not work all the time. Pakistan is committed to Saudi Arabiaís security but largely in the context of threat from the non-Muslim world and certainly not at the cost of its own security.

Referring to changing geopolitics, a politically and economically strengthened Iran is likely to play a greater role, especially as it will likely be a partner of the US in fighting al Qaeda and other similar militants. Here it will find other willing partners as well, such as numerous Western countries and even China, Russia and India. The possible changes will have numerous repercussions but there are two worth thinking about, especially from Pakistanís perspective. Firstly, the era of rabid militancy may just be over. The powers that be can keep some of the jihadis hanging around but at a much higher cost. These proxies may not even be effectively used against India. The option is there but so is a high cost. These groups have been involved in a war and on some occasions almost setting the stateís foreign policy agenda. Thus, all jihadi groups and non-parliamentary right-wingers are supporting the idea of Pakistan actively protecting Saudi Arabia by committing to the conflict in Yemen. For jihadi organisations, continued jihad is a matter of ideology, power and financial resources. They will certainly balk at their shop closing down. While the government is dithering at implementing the National Action Plan (NAP), it may have to think more seriously about engaging the civil society to develop an alternative narrative that provides direction to ordinary folk.
Second, perhaps the era of active rent-seeking and trading resources for providing security as a service may be over. The traditional strategic benefactor, the US is developing new links with India and now normalising ties with Iran. Tehran and Delhi also have good ties with Moscow. They will have competing interests but not necessarily resolve disputes through active conflict. The economic imperative is significant. After the Yemen imbroglio, the ties with the Arab world may not get restored to the earlier level of confidence. Under the circumstances, Pakistan (and even the Arab world) cannot afford to remain a source of violence. Internationally, nuclear weapons will not buy additional political space for the country.
For Islamabad, there seems to be a temptation to draw closer inside the Chinese sphere of influence. In the last couple of decades, all the three services of the military have become more dependent on Beijing for their equipment. Islamabad will remain engaged with the US, but militarily and economically will become more dependent on Chinese intervention. But it is worth realising that the old paradigm of security is worth a review. We need a debate and a decision on our strategic options and reset priorities.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 16th, 2015.