The South Asia Channel
Pakistan’s Persian Gulf balancing act
As revolutions and counterrevolutions spread across the Middle East, regional heavyweights Iran and Saudi Arabia are troubled by the potential for domestic instability and the survival prospects of their respective allies. Meanwhile, in Pakistan, along the outer perimeter of the greater Middle East, the political class and military-intelligence establishment are comfortably nestled in the verdant ...
As revolutions and counterrevolutions spread across the Middle East, regional heavyweights Iran and Saudi Arabia are troubled by the potential for domestic instability and the survival prospects of their respective allies. Meanwhile, in Pakistan, along the outer perimeter of the greater Middle East, the political class and military-intelligence establishment are comfortably nestled in the verdant foothills of the Himalayas, home to the nation’s capital and army headquarters. Despite the seemingly infinite troubles afflicting Pakistan, in the short-to-medium term, political change is only likely to occur within the game of musical chairs among its power elite.
Pakistan’s power brokers, however, are watching changes in the Middle East, particularly in the Persian Gulf region, with great interest. For the governing coalition leader, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), and its adversary-overlord, the military-intelligence establishment, the Persian Gulf is home to major sources of energy and rent, such as remittances and economic aid, as well as critical diplomatic and military allies.
Turmoil in Bahrain and elsewhere has also inflamed the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. And Pakistan — a Saudi ally, an Iranian partner, and possessor of one of the region’s strongest militaries — is positioned to exploit Iranian and Saudi concerns about threats to the balance of power by extracting concessions from both energy-rich countries.
Earlier this week, Pakistan’s de facto foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, met in Riyadh with Saudi heavyweights, including Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, Interior Minister Naif bin Abdul Aziz, and National Security Council Secretary General Bandar bin Sultan. Riyadh is now courting the PPP, after having shunned it since it came to power in 2008. The Saudi foreign minister pledged to expedite the completion of a GCC-Pakistan free trade agreement, which would aid the fledgling Pakistani economy. Earlier in March, Prince Bandar visited Islamabad, met with Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership, and offered the PPP-led government oil on deferred payment. He reportedly secured Pakistani pledges to put two army divisions on standby for deployment to Saudi Arabia. This alleged Pakistani commitment – which is likely much less than reported, but has not been denied by the military — follows a recruitment drive by the Fauji Foundation, a Pakistani military welfare organization, for hundreds of retired security personnel to serve in the Bahrain National Guard.
Pakistan’s military-intelligence establishment has also sought a security pact with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Recent short-term security deals with Bahrain and Saudi Arabia could advance the prospects of such an arrangement. Beginning with the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) in the 1950s and continuing with the Economic Cooperation Organization and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization today, Pakistan has been keen to join regional multilateral organizations to offset the Indian economic and military threat, though these attempts have yielded minimal returns. However, declining Saudi confidence in the ability and willingness of the United States to stand by it could push it further into Pakistani (and Chinese) arms.
Pakistan’s increasing alignment with the Saudi-led Sunni bloc has angered Iran. Tehran summoned the Pakistani charge d’affaires to express its unhappiness with the recruitment of retired Pakistani security personnel to serve in Bahrain to quell the revolt. Late last week, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari sent close aide Interior Minister Rehman Malik to Tehran to address Iranian concerns.
While Pakistan’s partnership with Saudi Arabia is more robust than its ties with Iran, Islamabad cannot afford to alienate the latter, an increasingly key economic partner. Iran exports electricity to Pakistan — which currently faces a major energy shortage — and has provided it with oil on deferred payment. Energy-starved Pakistan also hopes to complete a pipeline importing natural gas (its largest fuel source) from Iran’s South Pars field by 2014. Though there are considerable hurdles blocking the completion of an Iran-Pakistan pipeline, Pakistan needs to at least maintain the pretense of an Iranian natural gas option so as to not overleverage itself with the more viable route that crosses over Afghanistan, where the Pakistani military is engaged in a complex fight to muscle its way into the presidential palace. If Pakistan made it clear that its only major natural gas option was the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan pipeline, then the Karzai government and Obama administration could use Pakistani dependency for security along the supply route through Afghanistan to weaken its resolve to support Afghan insurgents.
Tehran and Islamabad have also agreed to work to quadruple bilateral trade to $4 billion by 2016. And the PPP-led government has pushed forward plans to connect Pakistan to Europe through a rail link that will cross Iran into Turkey, an emerging economic powerhouse. Tehran can withhold economic cooperation, but its ability to punish Islamabad is limited. Indeed, Tehran is more likely to match Riyadh’s concessions to Islamabad, rather than withhold aid and curb trade. Hit by United Nations-imposed economic sanctions, Iran is keen to export natural gas to Pakistan, giving the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment’s considerable maneuverability vis-à-vis security cooperation with the Saudi-led Sunni bloc. Still, the Pakistani military, which is largely agnostic toward partnering with Iran, would benefit from Tehran’s endorsement of a political settlement that includes the Taliban, undercutting a potential Iranian-Indian entente over Afghanistan, such as what existed in the 1990s.
For Pakistan to maximally gain from the Saudi-Iranian crisis, it will have to perform a deft balancing act. Islamabad cannot afford a breakdown in relations with Riyadh or Tehran. And if tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia grow, especially in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia’s eastern al-Sharqiyyah province, pressure on Pakistan to choose between the two powers will also likely increase. Pakistan’s optimal risk-reward ratio will come from moderate levels of tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia, enough to keep benefits flowing to Pakistan without a high likelihood of having to make a painful choice between the two partnerships.
Arif Rafiq is president of Vizier Consulting, LLC, which provides strategic guidance on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. He writes at the Pakistan Policy Blog (www.pakistanpolicy.com).