A recent statement by Iran’s military chief, threatening to conduct cross-border raids against Jaish-e-Adl militants who carry out cross-border attacks, has led to a flurry of diplomatic activity during this current week. Pakistan recorded a formal protest with the Iranian ambassador in Islamabad over the statement, which in turn led a high-level Iranian delegation to visit Pakistan for meetings with our military and political leadership.
Both Pakistan and Iran have reiterated their desire to do more to secure the frontier, curb smuggling and human trafficking, and crack down on dissidents operating on either side of our shared border. Yet, while the above episode seems to have been addressed in a constructive manner, there are larger developments at work which will continue to complicate Pakistan’s relationship with Iran.
General Raheel Sharif’s decision to head the Saudi Arabia-led Islamic Military Alliance (IMA) earlier this March is not something that has gone unnoticed in Iran. Ever since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, when ties between Riyadh and Tehran began to sour, Pakistan has had an increasingly difficult time maintaining ties with Tehran, especially due to Islamabad’s closeness with Riyadh. The proxy warfare between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Iran’s relationship with India, and its divergent interests in Afghanistan have further complicated this relationship.
Prior to taking up the command of the 39-nation military alliance of Muslim states, General Raheel called for inclusion of Iran in the alliance, required being granted decision making autonomy, and the ability to act as an arbitrator to promote greater harmony across the Muslim world. While these reported preconditions were meant to act as counters to the apprehensions that many observers have expressed regarding this appointment, the fact remains that the military grouping is still an overtly one sect alliance.
General Raheel’s leadership of the military alliance will yield potential benefits, such as enabling Pakistani military diplomacy to rebuild and bolster ties with Arab Gulf states, and it may even help slow the pace of deepening strategic ties between India and Gulf countries like the UAE. Yet, whether Pakistan’s former army chief’s appointment as the alliance head will imply a shift in our principled stance of neutrality in the Yemen crisis is yet to be seen. Pakistan’s close involvement with the military alliance does bring with it the threat of exacerbating proxy warfare between Saudi Arabia and Iran on Pakistani soil.
However, proponents of Pakistan’s decision to allow General Raheel to head the military alliance argue that Iran should have little reason to protest if Islamabad adopts a policy of dual engagement with Riyadh and Tehran. They argue that China and India have good relations with Iran and the Arab states, so Pakistan should be able to do the same.
There is now growing convergence in how Pakistan and Iran view the prospects of bringing stability to Afghanistan, working alongside other regional powers such as Russia and China. It is also encouraging to see Iran and Pakistan and their respective emerging ports of Chabahar and Gwadar as ‘sister’ entities instead of rival ports. However, there are several impediments that both these countries need to address which do not complicate Iran’s relationship with countries like India or China. Alleged Iranian support for Pakistani militants, for example, continues to provide fuel for the Pakistani Taliban aspirations of targeting the country’s Shia population, and incursions by Jaish militants into Iranian territory are also becoming a major source of irritation. There are also allegations of Iran also helping stoke restiveness in Sistan-Baluchestan, and Iranians too have had their concerns vis-à-vis Pakistani patronage of militant groups such as Jundullah.
Optimists point to the possibility of developing a grand alliance with Iran, as well as Turkey, anchored by China and Russia, to bring stability and economic development to Afghanistan and Central Asia. Conversely, the above challenges may exacerbate tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, worsen the existing sectarian rift in Pakistan, and aggravate past cleavages between Iranian and Pakistani approaches to addressing the problems of Afghanistan.
How General Raheel’s appointment at the helm of the alliance will impact Pakistan’s ambitions of balancing dual engagement with the Arab Gulf states, especially with Saudi Arabia, and Iran, remains an important question with varied implications.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 13th, 2017.