US can slow but not stop Pak-Iran ties

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By Javed Hafeez
The new government in Islamabad has vowed to attach priority to improving its relations with the neighbors. Considering the reality that an improvement in ties with India could take some time and relations with Afghanistan could remain wobbly in the near future, Pakistan is now focusing on Russia and Iran. This means regionalism is at the heart of the new foreign policy.

In this regional approach, Muslim nations like Saudi Arabia and Turkey are also hugely important. Recent Pakistani statements supportive of Turkey in its tariff tussle with the US and the Iranian nuclear deal underline this fresh approach. It is also apparent that foreign policy matters will now be conducted in a more transparent and less personalized manner.

It is possible that the Pakistani statement in support of the Iran nuclear deal may have irked Washington, which has decided to stop $300 million of aid for Islamabad’s efforts against extremism. It is also pertinent to note that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif was the first foreign dignitary to visit Islamabad after the assumption of power by the new government and personally greet Prime Minister Imran Khan. Is the US in a position to control Pakistani-Iranian relations? Before answering that, it is important to find out why Pakistan and Iran are important to each other.

Balochistan province is shared by the neighbors and this porous border has traditionally encountered problems with smuggling and security. The militant Jundullah threat has largely subsided, but incursions by Daesh into Iran and Pakistan are possible through Afghanistan. Both nations have crucial stakes in a tranquil Balochistan. This calls for effective and regular bilateral cooperation on border management.

Iran can play a role in a peace settlement for Afghanistan and, if both Tehran and Islamabad assume a cooperative stance, peace in Afghanistan could be more durable. Moreover, Iran could ensure that Pakistan’s growing oil and gas requirements are met at reasonable prices and conditions.
For a politically isolated and economically sanctioned Iran, Pakistan is equally important. Its main friend in South Asia, India, has gravitated toward the US. Iran has few friends in the Muslim world today. There are unconfirmed reports that Tehran has offered oil to Pakistan, payment for which could be made in the Chinese currency. Gwadar, the port city of Pakistan, will be the linchpin of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. With its large deep sea port and a vast economic free zone, this city, barely 100 kilometers from the Iran border, would need effective security measures. As it is, the Gwadar of today gets its electricity from the Iranian grid. Over the years, both Pakistan and Iran have realized that a cooperative approach is far better than mutual disdain.

Could Washington become a spoiler here? For Pakistan, relations with the US remain important but, by squeezing assistance to Pakistan, the superpower seems to have lost some leverage. Moreover, its current arm-twisting tactics are more Afghanistan-specific. The US could put the brakes on to slow the speed with which Tehran wants co-operation with Pakistan, but it cannot bring it to a halt. For example, the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline may not become a reality any time soon, but it remains a goal for both countries; they are just waiting for an opportune moment to see it come to fruition. China is a major importer of Iranian oil and Pakistan is the most important route for it to reach Western China, where huge economic development projects are under way.

It is now clear that Pakistan will not fight America’s war to allow its troops a face-saving exit from Afghanistan. It has, however, offered its offices for peace-making attempts. And Pakistan remains the most economical route for the US to supply its troops. At the moment, Pakistan feels very bitter about the shoddy treatment it has got from the world’s only superpower, despite its tremendous sacrifices in the war on terror. As these lines are being penned, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is in Islamabad. This visit is aimed at sounding out the mood of the new government. It is no coincidence that the US foreign ministerial visit will be followed by a Chinese visit at the same level.

One means of leverage that Washington still has is to promise cash-strapped Pakistan its support at institutions like the International Monetary Fund. For Pakistan, its relations with the US are very important, but then no nation wants to be taken for granted. A prudent use of more carrots, rather than sticks, by the superpower could still salvage the recent deterioration. Washington could also place some speed breakers on the road to Pakistani-Iranian cooperation, but it is not in a position to place a stop sign.

(Javed Hafeez is a former Pakistani diplomat with much experience of the Middle East. He writes weekly columns in Pakistani and Gulf newspapers and appears regularly on satellite TV channels as a defense and political analyst. Twitter: @hafiz_javed)