The Prime Minister, less than a hundred days in office, has already visited Saudi Arabia, the UAE and China. The visits have secured funding to mitigate the twin financial deficits and strengthened ties with those countries.
How about ties with Iran, Pakistan’s western neighbour with a population of some 80 million? The two countries share a long cultural history that precede the latter’s independence in 1947.
The court language of the Mughals who reigned over pre-British India was Persian and the tombs of their emperors bear Persian inscriptions. Pakistan itself is a Persian word, its national anthem is in Persian, and its national language, Urdu, is written in the Persian script. Chaste Urdu abounds in Persian words and literary allusions.
Presidents Ayub and Yahya who ruled in the 1958-71 period maintained close ties with Iran which was then ruled by the Shah. President Iskandar Mirza, overthrown by Ayub in 1958 and exiled to the UK, was denied a funeral in Pakistan. The Shah allowed his body to be buried in Tehran.
Strains developed in Iran-Pakistan ties during the tenure of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, which ran from 1971-1977. Bhutto sought closer ties with the oil-rich Gulf States in the wake of the Arab oil embargo, much to the discomfiture of the Shah of Iran.
Iran-Pakistan ties reached their nadir in 1979 when the Shah was overthrown and the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. President Zia said goodbye to Iran and welcome to Saudi Arabia. He replaced Khuda Hafiz with “Allah Hafiz,” a clumsy coinage that is not to be found anywhere in the Arab world. Ayatollah Khomeini termed him Zia ul-Batil.
In recent years, border skirmishes have marred relations between Iran and Pakistan. What is the future of Iran-Pakistan ties under Prime Minister Imran Khan? I put that question to Alex Vatanka, a scholar at the Middle East Institute who has authored a recent book on Iran-Pakistan ties.
Vatanka recalled that during a visit to Islamabad the lights went out at the airport. He said all the foreigners in the immigration line were shocked. How could the lights go out in the capital of a country with 200 million people that prides itself on being the only Muslim country with nuclear weapons? But the Pakistanis seemed resigned to power outages.
Vatanka wondered why an energy starved country like Pakistan was not availing itself of its proximity to Iran, which is blessed with one of the largest oil reserves in the world and the world’s largest gas reserves.
Why had Pakistan not built an oil or gas pipeline with Iran? Why had it not built a transmission line to Iran, connecting the power grid of the two countries? Millions of Pakistanis were suffering blackouts because their nation was not engaging with Iran.
The reason was not hard to identify. The US and the Gulf States were dead opposed to Pakistan improving its ties with Iran. Once again, politics had stumped economics.
Most likely, Pakistan will continue to deepen its ties with the Gulf Arab states, totally ignoring their abject record on human rights and turning a blind eye to how they treat Pakistani expatriates in the region
Vatanka observed that Pakistan’s foreign and defence policies were driven by a fear of India. While the Shah had provided substantial military and economic assistance to Pakistan, notably during the Indo-Pakistan wars of 1965 and 1971, the regime of the Ayatollah’s was unable to do so. Thus, “Since 1971 Pakistan had focused on getting largesse from the Gulf to fight India.”
In addition to assisting Pakistan directly, the Shah had also acted as Pakistan’s interlocutor with the US. The Ayatollah’s were in no position to intercede on Pakistan’s behalf to anyone. Plus they maintained strong economic ties with India.
Because of their shortsighted policies, Vatanka argues that both Pakistan and Iran are “punching below their weight.”While Pakistan continues to indulge in Indo-phobia, the Ayatollahs harbor a “vague notion of independence from the West.” Both believe that religion is the cure to all their ills.
When the Shah was deposed, many of his supporters went into exile, or were arrested or executed. They were replaced with rank amateurs. I can attest to that since two of the graduate students at the University of California who got their doctorates with me in 1979 were soon appointed to high positions in the Khomeini regime. One became the governor of Khuzestan and the other as the governor of the central bank (later, he became the finance minister).
During his tenure from 1977 and 1988, Zia ignored Iran, despite the historical ties between the two countries, and despite the presence of the second or third largest population of Shia Muslims in the world, and focused on the Arab states.
Today, the Iranians don’t trust the Pakistanis, seeing them as a people who have sold themselves to the Gulf Arabs for near term gains, ie, to get the money they need to fight India.
Competition has replaced cooperation between Iran and Pakistan. The ports of Gwadar and Chabahar ports, located less than a hundred miles from each other, engage in head-to-head competition. With the arrival of an additional $6 billion in its coffers from the Saudi’s, Pakistan may not be able to stay out of the Yemini conflict for very long.
Vatanka said that Pakistan’s relationship with India is suffused with strategic myopia and it’s unlikely that anything will change during Imran Khan’s tenure. Dark religious forces have penetrated Pakistan’s strategic culture and it will prove difficult for any prime minister, least of all one with a tenuous majority in parliament, to remove them from their dominant role, as the controversy over the judgment in the Asia Bibi case has shown. Religion has weakened Pakistan from within.
Most likely, Pakistan will continue to deepen its ties with the Gulf Arab states, totally ignoring their abject record on human rights and turning a blind eye to how they treat Pakistani expatriates in the region.
Vatanka said the time has come for Pakistan to move beyond the Kashmir dispute with India. It’s a “land dispute” with no solution. It should stop pursuing strategic depth in Afghanistan in anticipation of a future war with India. Most importantly, it should stop blaming the Americans, the Israelis, and the Indians for all its woes. Many of the problems are self-inflicted.
Imran has offered to mediate the conflict between Riyadh and Tehran. Mediating between warring countries is a tall order, fraught with failure. General Zia failed to mediate the conflict between Tehran and Baghdad and the Iran-Iraq War raged for eight years.
Perhaps Imran should put the onus on Riyadh and Tehran, both of whom trade extensively with New Delhi, and ask one or both of them to mediate the conflict between India and Pakistan.