By Syed Zafar Mehdi
February 24, 2019
His victory speech, in which he firmly declared his commitment to strengthen ties with allies in the Middle East, mentioning Saudi Arabia and Iran in the same breath, was seen as an indication of Islamabad’s balancing act between the two regional heavyweights.
More importantly, it appeared a welcome shift from his predecessor Nawaz Sharif’s overt and barefaced proximity towards Riyadh.
The overwhelming influence of military leadership in Pakistan, especially in foreign policy matters, is an undeniable fact. Many observers believe Sharif’s eventful political career was cut short by the military, and Khan was brought in as his replacement.
While some astute political pundits were of the opinion that Khan, a cricketer-turned-politician, too would have limited say in foreign policy matters, it was widely believed that relations between Iran and Pakistan would improve under him.
When the new government in Islamabad rebuffed the United States saying it reserves the right to ‘pursue legitimate economic and commercial interests’ with Iran in the wake of re-imposition of economic sanctions on Tehran by the Trump administration, it was significant on many counts.
The statement was a clear indication that the Imran Khan government would not buckle under the U.S. pressure and would chart its own independent foreign policy. That was something his predecessor had failed to do.
Khan even said that his government would revive the ambitious Iran-Pakistan pipeline project that was put on the backburner by the previous government under the pressure of Riyadh and Washington.
All these developments seemed encouraging and suggested that the new government in Islamabad, which came to power on the plank of ‘Naya Pakistan’ (New Pakistan), would chart an independent course, without succumbing to the influence of Western and Arab powers.
Khan, who had campaigned vigorously against his predecessor’s flawed economic policies, found himself in the same situation. He faced many uphill tasks, most notably reviving the embattled economy through immediate and long term reforms and dealing with the scourge of extremist organizations and terrorist groups operating in the country.
Farahnaz Ispahani, a former Pakistani MP and Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Centre, in an interview with Tehran Times that time said the new government needed to “break out of its cycles of boom and bust but for that serious reform, not gimmicks and temporary solutions, are needed”.
However, instead of focusing on real reforms, Khan followed the same beaten track. His government secretly approached the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a bailout, and sought financial help from China and Saudi Arabia.
While China has a massive economic project going on in Pakistan, as part of the Belt and Road initiative, Saudis doling out money to Pakistan was interesting. They saw an opportunity beckoning them and they grabbed it with both hands.
Without knowing, the new Pakistan government had traded its sovereignty for Saudi petro dollars.
During his first overseas trip to Riyadh after assuming power, Khan underscored that Riyadh will remain a priority for Pakistan’s foreign policy. Thus, he kept alive the tradition of his predecessors.
Khan said Riyadh had “always stood with Pakistan in difficult times and the Pakistani government and its people highly acknowledge it.” As an acknowledgement of his loyalty, Saudi regime announced $6 billion in financial support to Islamabad.
Those who were expecting a nuanced and balanced approach to Islamabad’s relations with Tehran and Riyadh under Imran Khan were left disillusioned.
Saudi’s financial support to Pakistan has less to do with its ‘friendship’ with Islamabad and more to do with its own sinister agendas. It has to be seen in the context of its global outsourcing of Wahhabi ideology and sponsorship of extremist groups in various countries affiliated to that ideology. It has to be seen in the context of its rivalry with Iran and its continuous efforts to destabilize Iran.
Pakistan is one of the countries where radical groups affiliated to the Saudi-sponsored Wahhabi ideology are found in large numbers. Under this diabolical project, many madrasas (schools) are being run, where youth are indoctrinated to join armed insurgent groups like Jaish e Adl, a little-known terrorist group operating out of Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, bordering Iran.
This particular terrorist group has been involved in many terrorist attacks inside Iran. The latest and one of the deadliest attacks came earlier this month in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province, which killed at least 27 members of Iran’s revolutionary corps (IRGC). The attack was carried out by a Pakistani national.
Following the deadly attack, Iranian generals without mincing words urged the Pakistani leadership to crack down on the terror group. Pakistan offered cooperation but denied involvement in the attack.
The attack coincided with another attack in Indian-controlled Kashmir, a disputed territory claimed by both India and Pakistan. While his country was facing the heat from two of its important neighbours, Pakistan’s prime minister was busy rolling the red carpet for the patron of these terrorist groups – Saudi Arabia’s crown prince.
During his visit to Pakistan, Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) announced $20 billion investment deals, including $10 billion refinery and oil complex in Gwadar, a port city in Pakistan’s south-western Baluchistan province close to Iran border.
The project, according to observers, will give Saudi firm foothold in the restive Baluchistan province of Pakistan, which will aid in its efforts to destabilize neighbouring Iran.
Taha Siddiqui, a senior Pakistani journalist, in an Al Jazeera column wrote that the Saudis were “using aid packages and investment promises to buy the economically embattled Pakistani government’s loyalty and convince it to turn a blind eye to their destructive actions within Pakistan's borders.”
The writing was on the wall: In lieu of petrodollars, Pakistan not only put its sovereignty at stake but risked losing friendship of neighbours like Iran.
Pakistani officials have long argued that Islamabad has limited control over these terrorist groups and they mainly operate under the command of the country’s powerful and notorious intelligence agency ISI, which again shows the fault line between the civilian and military leadership in Pakistan.
However, there is agreement that the civilian leadership in Pakistan has knowledge about terrorist sanctuaries in the country but it continues to live in denial.
Some even say that since Khan was helped by the military leadership in elections, it would be nearly impossible for him to take a position against these militant groups.
Pakistan’s military has traditionally favoured stronger ties with Arab countries, paying less attention closer home. Although in last few years, it had cosied up to Iran but Saudi’s petrodollars turned the tide again in favour of Riyadh.
While Pakistan’s military, according to observers, has used these militant groups for proxy wars against India and Afghanistan, it has allowed groups like Jaish e Adl to flourish in region bordering Iran on the instructions from Riyadh.
Yet, it has always rejected involvement in attacks inside India mostly carried out by Jaish e Mohammad and Lashkar e Toiba, it has rejected complicity in attacks inside Afghanistan perpetrated by Afghan Taliban and it refuses to accept culpability in attacks inside Iran carried out by Jaish e Adl. It is widely acknowledged that all these groups have bases in Pakistan.
A Pakistan-based analyst speaking to Tehran Times said these groups certainly operate under the jurisdiction of ISI but the civilian leadership should know that accepting billions of dollars from Saudi rulers is akin to inviting trouble.
“When Imran Khan government gave MBS red carpet welcome and proudly accepted his investment deals, including in Baluchistan province, they should have known the motive of Riyadh, which is basically to use Pakistani territory to destabilize neighbouring Iran,” he said, wishing anonymity.
The popular opinion in Pakistan is overwhelmingly against Pakistan’s tilt towards Saudi Arabia, as it is being seen as counter-productive to Pakistan’s own strategic interests.
“By strengthening ties with Saudi Arabia and accepting billions of petrodollars, we are not only embracing Saudi royals but also those dreaded terrorist groups who carry out attacks inside Pakistan and in its neighbourhood,” said Ishtiyaq Hussain, a student at Quad e Azam University, Islamabad.
“It is time for the government to accept that these terrorist groups have sanctuaries inside our country and they are patronized by our military-intelligence leadership,” he said.
Mubashir Hussain, an Islamabad-based researcher, commenting on the latest statement of IRGC Quds brigade chief Gen. Qasem Soleimani said it should serve as a ‘wake-up call’ for the Imran Khan government.
“I think most Pakistanis would endorse Gen. Soleimani’s statement that Pakistan should not be subservient to Saudi interests because of petro dollars, it should take care of its borders and ensure Saudi money does not breed terrorism inside Pakistan,” he told Tehran Times.
Gen. Soleimani issued a terse statement on Thursday, cautioning Pakistan of Saudi’s true intentions behind billion dollars investment, saying the Kingdom is hell-bent on destroying Pakistan’s relations with its neighbours.
“Can't you, as a nuclear-armed state, deal with a hundreds-strong terrorist group in the region,” General Soleimani asked the Pakistani government.
“Iran is a safe neighbour for Pakistan and we will not threaten this country, but we will exact revenge against the Takfiri mercenaries, who have the blood of our youths on their hands no matter where in the world they are,” he warned.
Before General Soleimani, military aide to the Iranian Leader Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi also lashed out at ISI’s sponsorship of terrorists, telling Islamabad that Saudi Arabia was not a reliable partner.
He further said that evidence points to the backing of these terrorist groups by a number of Persian Gulf Arab states, including Saudi Arabia.