By: Shahzad Chaudhry

It is true that Iran has mostly been an outlier ever since the Ayatollahs took control of it. Internationally, it was easy to understand because an important American partner, the Shah, had been de-seated, instantly turning Iran from an ally to a sworn foe.

America thus lost its most strategic location to control the Persian Gulf and to run its largest CIA station. In 1979, with the cold war at its height there hadn’t been a bigger loss to American interests ever. Since then, the Gulf has changed colours from being Persian to Arabian. Interesting?

There was a regional conundrum too. Pakistan a declared ally of the Western block and Iran’s friendliest neighbour had to reorient almost equally instantly, the power of the 1970s geopolitics so dominantly overwhelming. Tied into Cento, which was the forebear of the current Centcom – a more militaristic evolution – and the RCD (Regional Cooperation Development) which weaved three major Asian allies of the US – Turkey, Iran and Pakistan – meant that all structures needed an instant review. Such was the consequence of one singular event – the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

The Iran-Pakistan relationship hasn’t recovered much since that geopolitical cataclysm. With little liberty of action away from its dominant American leanings, Pakistan never found the space to reset its ties with Iran. Such has been Pakistan’s legacy of dependence on the US for both military and economic assistance through the years. Now that newer dynamics dictate American priorities in the region Pakistan may find its moment in pursuing an independent foreign policy, though it still remains beholden to a strong American influence. As such, things haven’t changed how they should have with Iran.

There are two other underlying causes to this stand-off: old alliances have kept them locked in opposite camps even in the new world, and territorial linkages have imposed themselves in renewed interest in Iran on Balochistan. Once a combined territory, it had remained dormant while divided into its Pakistani and Iranian denominations – Iran’s being a sliver in comparison. But tenuous relations have rekindled a latent Iranian interest in furthering its territorial ambitions. Iran has tried hard to mask this latency but Pakistan remains wary of such intent.

Pakistan’s inalienable linkages to its interest tied with keeping the Americans in good humour. Add to it the compulsions of international finance literally dictated by the US, and its strangulating sanctions against Iran and anyone else doing business with it, and Iran effectively became a pariah, once an ‘axis of evil’ state. Pakistan could not break beyond what the world together had imposed as the governing regulation of Iran. But then what is good diplomacy? Getting to do what is in your interest while keeping all others in good humour.

We have singularly failed on this one critical aspect. Diplomats must never become warriors and imbibe sentiments of the militaries. If diplomacy becomes the supporting arm for war – unless it is essential to so act – and loses its own brand of carving space towards additional pathways to mitigate adversity, nations generally fail to achieve their interests and end up being sucked into even more unsavoury consequences.

Under ZAB Pakistan actively developed a support base in the Middle East. The Shah of Iran, secure under the American umbrella, had little cause for consternation. The Arab Middle East and Iran would all happily gather on the same table which the Americans chaired – the Arabs yet to evolve into more muscled entities. The Islamic Summit in 1974, the OIC and then the Arab League with the crown jewel the GCC have evolved over the years to give a sense of identity to the Arabs and their criticality in international affairs. In 1979, such identity only found an even sharper delineation. The Gulf was polarised into its Persian and Arab ends. Choosing sides was at one’s peril. But choose we did.

Pakistan has been indebted to Saudi Arabia for long now. SA has bailed Pakistan out when it ran out of money – which was more than once. Our rulers have found abode and succour there when they were in trouble back home. More than half of the Pakistani Diaspora that is critical to sending money back in Forex happens to work and live in SA. Other Gulf countries, especially the UAE, are a second home to many, both workers and people of means who own properties there. Most of the informal Pakistani trade to Iran or India is routed via the UAE. Qatar and other GCC nations continue to be a favoured haunt for Pakistani labour.

It was in this background that the Saudi request to provide it active support in their war against Yemen arrived as the first test to this fraternal relationship. Pakistani public opinion and its parliament went into an exceptional huddle to determine what constituted Pakistan’s prime interest.

Having played to the tune of others for too long, Pakistan finally found the courage to say ‘no’. Except that it happened to be to its perpetual benefactor, Saudi Arabia. That cut our Arab allies off badly and they responded by overtly cosying up to India.

This exceptionalism didn’t last long though. Very soon our leadership was travelling to SA more often and explaining itself than fighting our own wars in the country. Somewhere along the way, we agreed to make amends by making Gen (r) Raheel Sharif available to them to lead a 41-country Muslim military coalition against terror.

Rewind a little. During the last days of Obama, the Americans attempted at pushing an Arab coalition to fight against Assad rather than committing their own boots there. The Saudis were tasked to elicit support and Turkey, Egypt and Pakistan in particular were approached to contribute forces.

All three, politely and correctly, warded off direct involvement. That then gave cause to an indirect formulation of the 34-nation alliance initially that Pakistan was surprised to learn included it too. That act done, the ball has been difficult to roll back.

This arrangement was tested the first thing after Raheel Sharif took over in Riyadh. The Houthis in Yemen have forayed into contiguous Saudi villages to which Raheel Sharif has had to respond with forces in the theatre. That pulled in Pakistan into Yemen; implicit but easily pinned. Also, Saudi-Iran relations have nosedived with bad rhetoric taking over on both sides. Pakistan finds its most famous general, and possibly some force, sucked into this virulent vortex of an unwanted war. I have said before that, while SA will drive policy to which the coalition under Raheel Sharif will respond, Pakistan will suffer the consequences in its neighbourhood. The game has only begun.

All policy will have some con to it but smarter nations use diplomacy to cover vulnerabilities and mitigate adversity through aggressive engagement. We did neither, falling short on all counts. Nawaz Sharif will soon be in Riyadh to attend a US-Arab Summit which will stamp the American approval to the arrangement, always known to have been grandfathered by them. In the meanwhile General Baqeri of Iran has come out
all guns blazing, reminding us brazenly that when you do others’ bidding you also carry their trash. Expedience has once again trumped common sense. Sadly.