It cannot be easy being Bashar al-Assad. Syria’s president has lost his brother-in-law, and some would say, his sanity to the civil war raging across the country. Yet, he continues butchering his people. Syria’s been ‘booted out’ of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), one of the many little wrist-slaps the regime has somehow survived. But at the OIC’s last emergency meeting, Assad found sympathy from unlikely quarters.
President Asif Ali Zardari urged “a policy of non-interference” in Syria, then repeated himself in Tehran. In the routine outrage that followed though, commentators felt less strongly about Pakistan supporting the blood-splattered Assad than what several felt was a sop to Iran, Syria’s insurance in the Middle East. Whatever Pakistan’s motives, Iran is one of Pakistan’s most pressing cross-border headaches — even if no one likes talking about it.
The careers of the fellow Islamic Republics have been diverging for a while. And whereas Pakistan’s foreign policy agenda is defined hazily at best, Iran is not nearly as conflicted about the role it seeks for itself in the world. It patronises Hamas, the Palestinian party running the Gaza Strip. It throws its weight around in Iraq, the prime minister of which took refuge in Tehran during the Saddam years. And it extends a veritable lifeline to Hezbollah, now a force to be reckoned with in Lebanon.
Granted, Persian Empire 2.0 it is not, nor does Pakistan concern itself much with these states anyway (by itself a policy failure). But in places that Pakistan has bothered to create a stake for itself, like Afghanistan and post-uprising Bahrain, it quickly becomes evident that not only are the ‘brother countries’ on opposite sides, their proxies are also pitted directly against the other’s.
That is not to say there is no potential for improvement. Pakistan and Iran are bound by historic, linguistic and cultural ties. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s fondness for cheap grandstanding commands a bizarre respect from the Pakistani street. Both sides remain committed to building the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, despite several stupid attempts at persuading Pakistan otherwise. But between Hezbollah, Assad’s Alawis, and the Shia-majority states of Bahrain and Iraq, most of Iran’s associates gel well with Tehran’s regional ambitions. By comparison, Pakistan’s credentials are not that good: armed with nuclear warheads, longstanding ties with Iran’s Arab archrivals and a series of ad hocisms in place of a foreign policy.
This bleeds into what was always a confused relationship. In 2005, Iran’s nuclear chief coincidentally let slip that “pieces of centrifuges” were received from Pakistan. Pakistan has accused Iran of arming militant Shia groups operating in the country. And unlike the old days when the Shah would ply the original PPP regime with Cobra gunships — for mowing down Baloch tribesmen — today’s Iran blames Pakistan for ignoring Sunni outfits like Jundullah in Balochistan.
Yes, everyone knows that Pakistani policy requires coherence. But Iran’s officialdom needs to grow up. Ever since the revolution, Iranian diplomacy has reduced its range to vary from petulance to hostile petulance. Unfortunately, proximity to Pakistan is not akin to either Israeli anger or American sanctions; it cannot be manoeuvred around or weathered through. A better relationship can only serve Iran. Just as a worse one would be disastrous for Pakistan. Organised segments at home despise Iran, are fearful of its ‘malign influence’ in the country and continue calling for Pakistan to act like a majoritarian state in the same way Iran is a doctrinaire one. And this happens at a time when the state is failing miserably to protect the lives of its Shia citizens.
Pakistan is neither Arab nor Persian. As it is neither, its citizens must reject those peddling narratives that seek to spread hatred in people’s hearts and murder by their identification cards.
Regardless, Iran and Pakistan are finding themselves in an increasingly dark place on the world stage. The ayatollahs marched there with conviction, our civilians and generals out of indifference. Coming closer via the pipeline — and long-term policy planning by Pakistan — may bring both nearer to the light.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 20th, 2012.