Iran’s influence in Pakistan more limited than ever

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By Javed Hafeez

Iran and Pakistan are neighbors and both have been designated Islamic republics. But notwithstanding its nomenclature, Pakistan was never meant to be a theocratic state by its founding fathers. On the contrary, their view of Islam was broad and inclusive, and even though the constitution of Pakistan designates Islam as its official religion, it does not show preference for any particular sect.
In the Iranian case, the position is different and after 1979, the clergy assumed power there. After this, Iranian foreign policy vowed to “export” its revolution to the region. But despite having the second largest shiite population after Iran, given its large demographic size, multi-ethnic and multi-sect population, Pakistan was a very unlikely candidate for a revolution modelled on Iran’s example.


Still, there is no denying the fact that Iran has always had some ingress in Pakistan at both government and societal levels.
The pre-1979 societal influence of Iran in Pakistan had a strong cultural accent based on the Persian language and it promotion, in addition to an already established tradition of Persian poetry and literature among the Muslims of the sub-continent. Pakistanis of various religious callings then had a soft spot for Iran.
But all this changed after 1979 when sectarian preferences began dominating the Iranian agenda in Pakistan. The Iranian lobby became narrower but more focused and at times dangerously developed a visibly antagonistic attitude toward the government of Pakistan and Pakistani’s majority Sunni sect.
When General Zia ul Haq imposed compulsory Zakat (Islamic charity) deduction law, the minority (Shiite) sect refused to abide by it. Similarly, during the rule of General Musharraf, a religious party wanted to table the sharia bill in Parliament. The clerical government in Tehran conveyed its reservations to the leadership in Islamabad and the matter ended there.

At the government level, the Iranian clout in Pakistan is clearly related to regional geo-politics. With its continuing India-specific tensions and issues with Afghanistan, Pakistan can ill afford to have a third hostile neighbor. Cleverly, Iran plays the Indian card when dealing with Islamabad as Pakistan does not want to see Tehran getting closer to New Delhi.
The Iranian government and its post revolution clergy have at times betrayed a somewhat condescending attitude toward Pakistan. In the days of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, when there was some political unrest in Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan, the Shah said publicly that in case the province secedes from Pakistan, Iran would intervene (to annex neighboring districts), and it is an open secret that the Iranian clergy talks to its counterparts in Pakistan from a rather high pedestal.
There are also rumors that Iranian cultural centers have been involved in the recruitment of Pakistani youth to fight in Syria. All said and done, the fact is that post 1979, the Iranian lobby in Pakistan has accentuated religious fault lines here between Shiites and Sunnis.
The Pakistani state’s outlook on Islam is inclusive and not narrow. It wants, as a matter of policy, to promote national cohesion and unity. Therefore, Iran’s efforts to give a new combative identity to one sect of the Pakistani population (Shiites make up 20% of Pakistan’s Muslims) are naturally viewed with suspicion. However, Pakistani authorities are cautious when dealing with Iran, with sectarianism and with its myriad problems along the Pakistan-Iran border.
But while the Iranian lobby has been successful in influencing certain legislative proposals in the past, it is not in a position to influence Pakistan’s vital ties with the Arab Gulf states now.
Pakistan has historic bonds with these countries now further cemented by commercial links and people to people contacts. The number of Pakistanis working in these countries and those visiting these countries for commercial purposes or tourism have gained great momentum in recent years. Specifically, Pakistan’s spiritual bonds with Saudi Arabia and a shared perception about regional peace and security with all six Gulf Cooperation Council countries provide a formidable base for their friendly ties.
Needless to say, Iran has not been able to export its revolution to any country in the region. Pakistan, with its demographic composition and democratic traditions inherited from the British rule, was never a suitable place for rule by the clergy of any denomination.

 (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. Article with courtesy – Arab News. Twitter: @hafiz_javed)