Nadeem F. Paracha
assassination of the controversial major general of Iran’s Islamic
Revolutionary Guard, Qassem Soleimani, by the equally controversial government
of US President Donald Trump, has put Pakistan into a spin.
in PM Imran Khan’s government announced that Pakistan would side with Saudi
Arabia, the oil-rich kingdom that is a firm American ally and strongly opposed
the spokesperson of the Pakistan military’s Inter-Services Public Relations
wing and then Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi were quick to announce that
Pakistan would remain neutral in case hostilities intensify between Iran and
was a frontline proxy state in the US and Saudi-funded ‘Islamist’ insurgency
against Soviet troops in Afghanistan in the 1980s. By the time Soviet troops
left Afghanistan in the late 1980s, the fallout of that war greatly impacted
Pakistan, deepening sectarian fissures in the country and aiding the
mushrooming of religious militancy and extremism, that eventually mutated and
this must be on the minds of the state and government of Pakistan for them to
declare their neutrality. But there is a lot more to Pakistan’s ambiguity in
this context. And I use the word ambiguity because relations between Iran and
Pakistan have largely remained abstruse, especially in the last 40 years or so.
Rand Corporation’s 2014 reader Iran’s Influence in Afghanistan describes the
relationship between Pakistan and Iran as ‘a complex mix of cooperation and
Iran is a
Shia Muslim-majority country headed by a powerful Shia clergy, which came to
power through a revolution in 1979. According to Andreas Rieck’s 2016 book The
Shias of Pakistan: An Assertive and Beleaguered Minority, Pakistan has a
significant Shia minority. Estimates from 2018 suggest 20 to 25 percent of
Pakistan’s population is Shia. And according to Jacquelyn K. Davis, in
Anticipating a Nuclear Iran, many of the Pakistani Shia support Iran’s
post-1979 political and ideological set-up.
mid-1970s, Pakistan enjoyed a seamless relationship with Iran. In fact,
Pakistan was closer to Iran than it was to Saudi Arabia. Iran, a modern pro-US
monarchy, was one of the first countries to recognise Pakistan when it was
formed in August 1947. Also, the Shah of Iran became the first major foreign
head of state to visit Pakistan in 1950.
1965 Pakistan-India war, when the US had suspended all military aid to both
India and Pakistan, Iran sent nurses, medical supplies and 5,000 tons of
petroleum to Pakistan. As an oil-rich country, Iran also threatened to impose
an embargo on oil supplies to India.
In the 2015
edition of the journal International Affairs and Global Strategy, M. Saqib Khan
writes that, to sidestep the US and European arms embargo imposed on India and
Pakistan during the war, Iran bought 90 Sabre fighter jets from West Germany
and sent them to Pakistan.
Pakistan as a modern extension of Persian culture in South Asia because of the
role this culture and language had played during Muslim rule in India between
the 13th and 19th centuries. But since the Shah’s Iran was known as ‘America’s
policeman in Asia’, it also tried to insulate Pakistan from the left-leaning
‘Third-Worldism’ — an idea first formulated by the charismatic Arab nationalist
leader Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and the ‘socialist’ Indian PM Jawaharlal
Nehru. Iran made sure that Pakistan remained firmly in the American orbit
during the Cold War.
of Pakistan admired Iran’s economic and social modernity and tried to emulate
it. In his essay, “Pakistan As A Factor in Indo-Iranian Relations”, for the
December 1974 issue of The Indian Journal of Political Science, L.K. Choudhary
wrote that, during the 1971 Pakistan-India war, Iran again sidestepped an arms
embargo on Pakistan and supplied it with military equipment. The Times of India
quoted the Shah as saying, “Pakistan and Iran are like one soul in two bodies.”
when a Baloch insurgency broke out in Balochistan, which shares a border with
Iran, the Shah provided lethal American-made combat helicopters to Pakistan so
that Baloch insurgents operating in the remote areas near the border could be
eliminated. This way Iran also eliminated the threat of the insurgency spilling
into Iran’s Baloch-majority areas.
between the two countries began to somewhat recede when the populist government
of Z.A. Bhutto in Pakistan attempted to formulate an international ‘Muslim
bloc’ in 1974. The planned bloc also included ‘enemies’ of the Shah, especially
‘radical’ Soviet-backed Arab regimes, such as Libya, Iraq, Syria, Algeria and
the erstwhile South Yemen. Therefore, the Shah was the only major Muslim head
of state to decline attending the 1974 Islamic Summit in Lahore, organised by
the Bhutto government.
the Bhutto regime was toppled in a reactionary military coup by Gen Ziaul Haq.
So when the Shah’s regime fell in 1979, and was replaced by a radical
theocracy, Pakistan became the first country to recognise the new government.
But the refreshed relations between the two countries, on the basis of Islam,
soon began to nosedive from 1981 onwards.
mid-1970s, Saudi Arabia, buoyed by increasing oil prices, had begun to
aggressively expand its circle of influence with the power of the so-called
‘petrodollar’. It also started to outpace Iran in matters of providing economic
aid to Pakistan, which came with the condition of adopting the Arab culture and
faith as prescribed by Saudi Arabia.
theocracy began to be seen as a threat by the puritanical Saudi political and
religious establishment — especially when Iran initiated the rather unabashed
export of its version of anti-Saudi and anti-US ‘political Islam’ to other
1980s, Pakistan accepted hefty financial and military aid from the US and Saudi
Arabia during the anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan. This money was also
used to form radical Sunni indoctrination outlets and militant outfits to
supplement Afghan militant groups. But many such outfits eventually turned
anti-Shia and thus anti-Iran. This saw Iran bankroll militant Shia groups
within Pakistan. The result was deadly violence, clashes and riots between
Saudi and Iranian proxies in Pakistan.
Pakistan declared neutrality during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, the Zia
regime increasingly galvanised Pakistan towards the Saudi and American orbit.
Pakistan sent 40,000 soldiers to Saudi Arabia in case the conflict spread to
the kingdom. A cultural consequence of this was the ‘Saudization’ of Pakistan
and the steady erosion of Persian culture; after the 1979 revolution in Iran,
it began being seen as ‘Shia culture’.
1981, Pakistan’s relations with Iran have remained tense and enigmatic. Iran
has often accused Pakistan of backing radical anti-Iran Sunni groups operating
near the Pak-Iran border, and Pakistan has expressed concern that anti-Pakistan
groups backed by India have been allowed by Iran to operate near the same
once have the two countries come close to fighting a war against each other.
Soleimani was understood by Islamabad as being an ‘anti-Pakistan hawk.’
Pakistan, having frenzied borders with India and Afghanistan, and only recently
managing to vanquish the extreme consequences of its participation in the
anti-Soviet Afghan insurgency, has wisely decided to declare neutrality in the
US-Iran conflict. More so, it has downplayed the fact that Soleimani was no
hero to Pakistan.
Headline: Pakistan and Iran’s Thin Red Line
Source: The Dawn, Pakistan