Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia make a very complex triangle of relationships
Recent developments in Yemen have brought to sharp focus Pakistan’s diplomatic vulnerabilities and have brought forward the sad reality that Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia make a very complex triangle of relationships. Unfortunately, Pakistan can enjoy good relationships with only one of them. Islamabad’s strategic compulsions, however, do not allow it to abandon any one of them. Iran is Pakistan’s Western neighbor and sits on the periphery of Pakistan’s most troubled province, Balochistan. Iran has a Balochistan of its own and figures in the international conspiracies to carve out an Independent Balochistan comprising Pakistani and Iranian Balochistan. Jundullah, an anti-Iran terrorist group operating from Pakistan is sponsored and funded by the CIA. Pakistan has to collaborate with Iran to fight and neutralize separatist elements in Balochistan.
Iran holds the key to regional peace, Afghanistan being center of gravity. Iran has its stakes and influence in non-Pashtun Afghanistan. It has military ties with India and its Chabahar port, very close to Gwadar, was built by India to encircle Pakistan, in line with its strategic objectives. If Pakistan antagonizes Iran, it risks increased Indian influence on its West and South-West. It will be a tough task because India is all poised to assume a greater role in Afghanistan after NATO’s drawdown of troops. It may be kept in mind that in order to develop Chabahar port, India has already built road infrastructure on Iran-Afghanistan border spending $750 million which will provide an access to Central Asia from Iran and neutralize the positive outcome of Gwadar port for Pakistan.
It is for this reason that India and US are bankrolling Balochistan insurgency to prevent Pakistan and China from taking advantage of Gwadar and building interconnecting physical infrastructure. Gwadar will be useful only after Pakistan builds roads and rail infrastructure in Balochistan which, given the intensity of insurgency, is not possible for Pakistan anytime soon.
Pakistan’s geo-strategic location is very interesting. It is very close to the mouth of Strait of Hormuz and every ship carrying all oil for East of Pakistan passes through North Arabian Sea i.e. Pakistan’s territorial waters. Any tension in the region and an imminent clash of interest of the world with Iran will directly impact Pakistan’s economic, political and strategic stability. Pakistan is an energy deficient country. The natural answer to this problem is import of gas from Iran for which IPI (Iran-Pakistan-India) gas pipeline project was initiated.
Fearing incidental benefits of this project to China, and also under US pressure, India has already decided to stay out of this project. Pakistan is also under immense US pressure to abandon the project and concentrate on a very unfeasible TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) gas pipeline project. Pakistan has yet not abandoned IP project and is a target of fury of US and its allies. Though Pakistan is still a part of the deal but its lukewarm response is already frustrating Iran. Any delay in launching the pipeline project will cost Pakistan Iran’s goodwill. Another difficult development is Iran’s pursuit of its nuclear program. This also threatens the regional peace with India and Pakistan already in possession of nuclear capabilities. Iran’s nuclear program threatens Israel and the US-Israel nexus can go to any limit to deprive Iran of this capability.
This is where the Saudi strategic interests figure in. Saudi Arabia has been Iran’s traditional adversary. These adversarial relationships were under wraps prior to 1979 when both the countries were America’s Cold War allies but the these adversarial relationships intensified after Iran was ruled by religious clergy whose religious ideology is opposed to that of Saudi Arabia. Both the countries have not fought any war so far but they are locked in ferocious proxy war since 1979 and the battlefield, unfortunately, has been Pakistan. Sectarian violence intensified in Pakistan causing deaths and bitterness and polarizing Pakistani society. Saudi Arabia does not approve of Pakistan’s close relations with Iran and tries to drive wedge between the two neighboring countries. Increased attacks on Hazaras of Balochistan and other Shia pilgrims by pro-Saudi extremists outfits is a clear indication that Saudi Arabia can go to any limit to teach Pakistan a lesson for its Iran relations.
Iran’s nuclear program is viewed a direct threat, not only to Israel but also Saudi Arabia and its allies. Recent troubles in Bahrain against the ruling regime supported by Saudi Arabia triggered under Iranian influence played a great part in further worsening Iran-Saudi Arabia relationships. It is generally assumed that any possible strike on Iran’s nuclear installations will have a tacit approval and support of Saudi Arabia. There were rumors in the recent past that Saudi Arabia had offered Israel to use its airspace for aerial attacks on Iran. Pakistan’s economy depends on Saudi Arabia in more than one ways. Nearly 60% of foreign remittances, a life blood for Pakistan’s economy, come for Pakistani diaspora working in Saudi Arabia and its allied countries. These workers not only bring petro-dollars, they also harbor close sympathy with these Arab countries.
This gives a great leverage to Saudi Arabia to meddle in Pakistan’s affairs directly and also through right-wing clergy funded by Saudis. This clergy was strengthened in Afghan jihad through massive donations which promoted Wahabi Islam and its violent side in Pakistan. The extremists in Pakistan are still sympathetic to Saudi Arabia and derive strength from its religious policies of intolerance. In addition to this, Pakistan has to depend on Saudi oil to power its economy which is available on deferred payments. Saudi Arabia is practically a US-satellite country.
Pakistan often uses Saudi influence to reach out to the US in difficult times. Like other financial institutions, Saudis also extend economic cooperation to Pakistan when it is approved of by the US. Saudis are suspicious of the current regime in Pakistan and are apprehensive of its pro-Shia policies. They think that PPP government is playing a dual role; trying to please both Iran and Saudi Arabia. The space created by this suspicion is proactively being filled by India which worries Pakistan. Saudi Arabia was visibly unhappy over the closure of NATO supplies for such a long period. The Saudi decision to hand over Mumbai attack suspect to India was pressurize Pakistan to come to terms with the US, and by implication with Saudi Arabia.
This situation is a cause of concern for Pakistan’s security establishment. It cannot afford to annoy Saudi Arabia for economic and political reasons. Warming up of Saudis to India is another cause of concern. As for Iran, it was never a reliable friend for a variety of reasons but it could have been kept in good humor had Saudi-Iran standoff not caught Pakistan. India is building bridges with Pakistan’s friends; Afghanistan is already hostile and has traditionally been a safe haven for anti-Pakistan elements of all hues, including Baloch nationalists. In this situation, Iran can be a source of more worries if it keeps annoying international community. It could be even more worrisome if it repairs its relationship with India after the recent banning of Iranian oil in Indian waters and India’s jumping the IPI ship.