Quetta tragedy and Iran-Saudi connection….

Iran_Saudi Arabia3Successive attacks on a particular minority, both ethnic and religious, living in Quetta raises so many disturbing questions. The fundamental questions are; is it ethnic cleansing of Hazaras, are they being targeted for belonging to a religious minority, do they pose as a threat to terrorists or a hurdle in the terrorist attacks and deserve to be eliminated so terrorists can hit at will? Incidentally, Hazaras are a peaceful community which they have demonstrated in spite of worst form of persecution. Since they do not pose a threat to even mainstream religious and social groups, their killing does not make any sense. According to available information, Hazaras are a Persian-speaking people who mainly live in central Afghanistan. They are overwhelmingly Shia Muslims and comprise the third largest ethnic group of Afghanistan, forming about 16% (according to other sources up to 22%) of the total population. More than 650,000 Hazaras live in neighboring Pakistan (mostly settled in Quetta) and an estimated one million in Iran. Literacy level among the Hazara community in Pakistan is relatively high and they have integrated well into the social dynamics of the local society. Saira Batool, a Hazara woman was one of the first female pilots in Pakistan Air Force. Other notable Hazara include Qazi Mohammad Esa, General Muhammad Musa, who served as Commander in Chief of the Pakistani Army from 1958 to 1968 and Air Marshal(r) Sharbat Ali Changezi.

The question is; then why Hazaras are being massacred? To find an answer to this question, we will have to look at the geo-political situation and the proxy war being fought in Pakistan by various powers. Before we start the analysis, let us make it very clear that Hazara massacre is not a sectarian clash as witnessed in other parts of the country; though players of sectarian games may be at the center of this unfortunate massacre.

Pakistan has its friendship with Iran and has recently finalized its long-standing contract for buying gas from Iran in spite of US and Saudi pressure. Sadly, Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia make a very complex triangle of relationships and Pakistan can enjoy good relationships with only one of them. Pakistan’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 like Pakistan has the key for Afghanistan peace in Pashtun areas.  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 with India all poised to assume greater role in Afghanistan after NATO drawdown of troops.

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 direct impact Pakistan’s economic, political and strategic stability. 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 these adversarial relationships intensified after Iran was ruled by religious clergy whose religious beliefs are opposed to those of Saudi Arabia. Both the countries have not fought any war so far but they are in proxy war since 1979. 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. 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.

In this backdrop, the Hazara massacre is an attempt to drive wedge between Pakistan and Iran. The terrorist group, LeJ which accepted the responsibility for Hazara massacre is known for its links with Saudi Arabia and receives funding from Saudis and their allies in the Middle East. With a sizeable population of Hazaras in Iran, it is not difficult to put both Pakistan and Iran under pressure through these killings. The mother entity of LeJ was established to counter expanding influence of clerical rule of Iran and their tirade against the personalities held in esteem by mainstream Muslim population of Pakistan.

This article originally appeared in: ALLVOICES