The South Asia Channel
The Janus State
Pakistan has employed Janus-faced diplomacy with rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia to navigate a minefield of regional obstacles.
There is a speeding train heading towards Pakistan, but it’s not the metaphorical kind. At least not yet.
Rail service between the Pakistani city of Quetta and the Iranian city of Zahedan resumed this week after it was suspended for roughly five years. The continued service is the latest episode in bolstering relationships between the two countries as Iran heads to a June 30th negotiating deadline with major world powers over its nuclear program. At the same time, Pakistan has played a central role in the Saudi-backed military campaign in Yemen — by refusing to take part. The Pakistani parliament surprised some analysts and Gulf countries by unanimously voting to remain on the sidelines and not send troops to support their longtime allies. Pakistan is not involved in either the Saudi campaign in Yemen or Iranian nuclear negotiations, yet both are Islamabad’s relations in the region.
“Pakistan finds itself between a rock and a hard place. For decades they’ve relied on the Saudi’s for friendship but the Iranians are their neighbor” said Robert Hathaway, a Public Policy Fellow at the Wilson Center over telephone. “Pakistan hates being caught in this conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia.”
In a region where sectarianism threatens to push the country off the rails, Pakistan has deliberately avoided it. Pakistan has employed Janus-faced diplomacy with regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia to navigate a minefield of obstacles that threatens this delicate balance.
Analysts say the unanimous decision by Pakistan’s parliament to avoid fighting an Iranian proxy in Yemen avoided sectarian conflict inside Pakistan. Roughly a quarter of the country’s population is Shia, and attacks on Shia mosques this year have led to a rise in tensions. The Pakistani military also has a tradition of having both Sunni and Shia in its ranks.
“How do you get a catastrophe in Pakistan? You break the military for good,” said Daniel Markey, a professor at Johns Hopkins University over the phone. “A decision to avoid that sectarian divide from infecting the Army might have contributed (to Pakistan’s decision not to send troops to Yemen).”
A long-planned pipeline from the Iranian city of Asalouyeh to Nawabshah has the potential to meet Pakistan’s energy demands, yet construction has been delayed due to economic sanctions on Tehran. Speaking to reporters last week, Pakistani Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry was hopeful that a nuclear deal between Iran and world powers could be reached that would allow sanctions to be lifted and the pipeline to proceed.
While Pakistan has gone to lengths to forge ties with Iran, it hopes that its longtime ally — Saudi Arabia — will either not notice or not care. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are bonded through a shared faith and history birthing, then becoming the target of Islamic extremism. Saudi Arabia supplied money to Afghan volunteers fighting the Soviet Union in the 1980s while Pakistan coordinated logistics and provided training. Those roles continued when Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have worked on a bilateral basis over the years.
Saudi Arabia is resource rich. When the United States slapped sanctions on Pakistan for testing nuclear weapons in 1998, Saudi Arabia gave the government in Islamabad 50,000 barrels of oil a day to help meet energy needs. When reserves of the rupee dipped dangerously low last year, Saudi Arabia gave the Pakistani government $1.5 billion in aid. Although Saudi Arabia has the oil and money to provide Pakistan with aid, Pakistan has nuclear weapons — a safety net for Saudi security.
But a former U.S. military official was quoted in the Sunday Times last month, saying that “there has been a longstanding agreement in place with the Pakistanis and the House of Saud has now made the strategic decision to move forward.”
This is not the first time reports of a split between the countries has been floated, and the issue has taken on new life as an agreement between Iran and major world powers could give Tehran a pathway to nuclear weapons.
The foreign secretary denied there was an agreement to share nuclear weapons, calling reports “baseless.” He added: “Pakistan is not talking to Saudi Arabia on nuclear issues, period.”
It was not the first time the foreign secretary has denied the existence of an agreement — and it likely will not be the last as the negotiating deadline approaches. Saudi Arabia has pledged to match Iran’s nuclear capability, and if the Kingdom feels Tehran has a road to a nuclear weapon, they may call Islamabad.
Shuja Nawaz, the author of the most authoritative book on the Pakistani military and brother of former Pakistani four star general Asif Nawaz, doubted a nuclear sharing agreement existed in an interview, and said Pakistan would do all it can to keep a balance between Saudi Arabia and Iran if tensions continue to escalate.
“I don’t believe that Pakistan faces such a stark choice, I believe that Pakistan will try and keep a balance. If Iran becomes a nuclear power, that’s not a threat for the Pakistanis,” Nawaz said.
The biggest threat to Pakistan won’t be bred out of the sectarian divide in the Middle East — it will remain India. The Pakistani foreign secretary said that his country’s nuclear weapons are a “deterrence we have been able to develop as a response to a threat perception from our east.”
If Pakistan is pursuing a Janus-faced approach to Iran and Saudi Arabia, both of its eyes will remain fixed on India.
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images