Pakistan’s Other Foreign Policy Challenge; Managing Ties Between Iran, Gulf States

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Context

With Pakistan’s ties with India somewhat stabilized and Afghan reconciliation making positive headway, it can be safely assumed that US-Pakistan relations are also on the positive trajectory. Another big indicator of this was the announcement related to the change in the nations threat perception: away from external and towards internal threats. Now, the country is busy managing the other foreign policy challenge; balancing its ties with the Arab world, especially the Gulf States, and Iran. How this tangent works out, will also impact the aforementioned ties and the nations political, security, and economic outlook.

Analysis

Pakistan, Iran Energy, and Economic Cooperation

According to the statements of Pakistan’s top leadership, the country remains fully intent on proceeding with the Iran-Pakistan (IP) gas pipeline project despite US apprehensions. On the other hand, President Ahmadinejad demonstrated his commitment towards the pipeline during his visit to Islamabad in November 2012 to attend the D8 Summit.

Immediately following Ahmadinejad’s trip, on December 3rd a delegation of Iran’s parliamentary committee on national security and foreign policy, headed by Alaeddin Borojourdi, visited Pakistan. He held talks with the Chairman of Senate’s Committee on Defense and Defense Production, Mushahid Hussain Syed. Mushahid had stated at the time that Iran and Pakistan have common views and concerns on the Afghan reconciliation, and need to work closely.

According to media reports, during these discussions the decision was made to increase cooperation and coordination between the defense ministries of the two countries. Mushahid also offered support to Iran by stating that Pakistan rejects double standard on Iranian nuclear program, and emphasized that these issues should be resolved peacefully and without threats of force or foreign intervention.

Saudi Concerns

Amongst others, the above developments must have raised alarm bells in Riyadh, especially now that Pakistan takes on the rotating presidency of the UN Security Council. Soon afterwards, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud-Al Faisal invited Hina Rabbani Khar to visit the Kingdom. Meanwhile, President Zardari’s trip to Iran scheduled for December 7th got postponed at the last minute. The purpose of his tour was to finalize the details and financing of the IP gas pipeline project and to discuss the Afghan reconciliation.

Khar’s two-day visit to the Kingdom that started on January 1st was reportedly to strengthen the strategic relations between the two countries. Talking to Arab News, Khar commented “I have intensive discussions on the roadmap that will set out a new vision of relationship between the two (Pakistan and Saudi Arabia) countries.” From all indications, however, Khar’s trip seemed more to smoothen Saudi anxieties towards improving Pakistan-Iran relations and bringing the Kingdom on board on the evolving Afghan reconciliation.

So far as Middle East remains in flux, managing Iranian and Saudi anxieties regarding Pakistan’s new regional approach will be an on-going and a delicate process. Apparently, the main goal of Pakistan’s new regional strategy is to balance the political and security concerns in its external environment and to open up new and untapped economic opportunities.

This is no easy task. In fiscal year 2012-13, Pakistan’s remittances from the Gulf region are expected to reach $10 billion, which constitute about 61% of its total remittances. Total remittance from Saudi Arabia alone stood at $3.68 billion during 2011-12. According to Saudi Trade Minister, trade volume between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan was at about $4.8 billion in 2012. Based on an interview that Pakistan’s ambassador to UAE Jamil Ahmed Khan gave to Khaleej Times in 2011, the volume of Pakistan’s trade with GCC is expected to increase from $59 billion to $350 billion by year 2020. On the other hand, trade volume between Pakistan and Iran is estimated to reach $5 billion by 2015. Aside from the future benefits of the IP project, the economic calculation is clearly in the favor of GCC.

Other than economics, Pakistan’s second concern has to with geopolitics; the country does not have direct borders with the Gulf region, but it does with Iran. A conflict involving Iran and Saudi Arabia will create acute ethnic tensions with in Pakistan; some of these are already at work.

Future of GCC And Implications For Pakistan

While Pakistan implements its new regional approach, it’s critical to understand what’s on the mind of Gulf States. These countries, especially UAE and Saudi Arabia, are increasingly alarmed about where the Arab Spring might be heading next. In addition, the Gulf States are also deeply anxious about the backlash from Syria, repercussions of dramatic changes in Egypt, and Iran’s nuclear program. Just last month, UAE authorities busted a cell whose members belonged to Saudi Arabia and the emirates. The militants were planning to carry out attacks across the Gulf region.

To preempt these negative trends, Saudi Arabia in particular is pushing the GCC towards a union and a confederation: to cooperate and coordinate their foreign policy and security affairs. “We aspire to a strong union with integrated economies, a joint foreign policy, and a common defense system,” Prince Salman Bin Adbul Aziz commented in December 2012 at the annual GCC Summit held in Manama, Bahrain. At the meeting, the Gulf ministers agreed on developing a unified military command and the creation of Peninsula Shield Force that according to some will pave the way for a Gulf Army.

There remain many political and bureaucratic challenges in the full implementation of this strategy. However, the Gulf States are aggressively positioning themselves to meet the emerging threats and the evolving Middle East. GCC recognizes that they can have a greater regional and global clout if they act in unison. For example, Pakistan will have a lot to worry about if GCC acts together to counter Pakistan’s decision to go ahead with the IP gas pipeline project.

If tensions over Iran’s nuclear program develop in to a war, Pakistan will be caught balancing between Gulf States and NATO, on the one hand, and China and Russia on the other. As previously noted by PoliTact, there is a great deal of similarity between the stances adopted by India, Pakistan, and even Turkey, on the recent crises in the Middle East. These countries have a key diplomatic role to play in preventing Iranian tensions to escalate any further, which can jeopardize their attempts to delicately juggle the political, security and economic concerns.

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