Tackling The Emerging Middle East; Managing Saudi And Irani Influences


25-02-2014_Raheel Sharif Award Salman

From what one can gather, Jinnah supported Great Britain in both World Wars. This should not be interpreted as a reflection of his belief in colonial causes and interests. Rather, these positions reflected the meaning of these wars for him and for the future of the people he represented. Some historians and critics take a simplistic approach in evaluating Jinnah’s stance: he was helping the British in their time of need, but Jinnah positioned himself to gain some reciprocity and sympathy when the opportunity presented itself. Great Britain was the victorious power in both World Wars, and it always helps to side with wining party.

It also could be that Quaid-e-Azam believed more in Sir Syed’s vision refined after the Indian Rebellion of 1857; the British were not going away any time soon and salvation and success depended on learning from and working with them, mimicking the Hindus. Jinnah’s attitude was in stark contrast to that of Mowlana Azad, Mowdudi, Mohammad Ali and Showkat Ali, Ghaffar Khan, and other Pan-Islamists of the time. He was against the Khilafat Movement, which was formed to pressure the British against the breakup of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, and considered it a religious exaggeration. Gandhi, ironically, had supported this movement. Some Pan-Islamists later resisted the formation of Pakistan, as it would divide the Muslims of the subcontinent.

In the present nation-state context, Pakistan stance on the campaign against extremists presents resemblance to that of Jinnah’s position in dealing with the British. However, as the Middle East and North Africa increasingly get unsettled under the overlapping forces related to extremism, Arab Spring, and the tussles of the global players, Muslims of the subcontinent, are once again being required to form a response. The better they understand what is taking place in the present day Middle East, the more prepared they will be to not repeat the mistakes of the past.


Afghan Jihad and Iranian Revolution

Pakistan itself seems to be passing through one of it toughest phases, with turmoil internally and in the neighborhood. Since the dismemberment of the country in 1971, the region has gone through four decades of continuous warfare. This has included the Iranian revolution of 1979, Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iran-Iraq War of the 80s, the Afghan civil war of the 90s, and the present phase that began since 9/11.

Between the period of 1947 to 1971, Pakistan and Iran enjoyed very close ties. In both the 1965 and 1971 wars against India, Iran supported Pakistan diplomatically, militarily and financially. The country also offered military equipment, training and intelligence to Pakistan in suppressing the Baloch insurgency in the mid 70s.

Iran-Iraq War

The Khomeini led rebellion effectively transformed the nature of the pro-American regime. Only a year later, in 1980, Iran-Iraq war commenced and lasted until 1988, almost up to the time when Soviets started to withdraw from Afghanistan. During this phase, while Iran was moving out of the American influence, Pakistan was getting fully embedded in to it. The nation helped facilitate the Jihad against the Soviets with assistance of the Arabs and the US. The role of Pakistan in the Iran-Iraq war, however, was premised on maintaining a delicate balance.

Pakistan went out of its way in helping protect the Gulf States, and according to some estimates, Zia-ul-Haq placed close to 40,000 military personnel in Saudi Arabia for security and training purposes. This, however, did not occur at the cost of Iran. Reportedly, Pakistan also supplied weapons to Iran, and both neighbors supported the Afghan Jihad, albeit different factions. The global powers were applying a similar strategy; while Russians were intermittently supplying weapons to Iraq, the Iran-Contra affair illustrated that US was also equipping the Iranians.

While Saddam’s decision to invade Iran in 1980 is believed to be a miscalculation, he feared that a strong religiously oriented Iran would disturb the Shia-Sunni balance of Iraq. Saddam repeated his misjudgment when he invaded Kuwait in August 1990, but was met with a different western response. Ever since Iraq has come under American led intervention twice, and despite all past attempts to contain Iran, its sway has grown. In the end, it was the western intervention that disturbed the ethnic balance of Iraq.

Emerging Dynamics

The rather simultaneous events of the Iranian revolution in 1979, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and Iran-Iraq war of the 80s, altered the dynamics of Middle East. Western policies during this time frame were primarily meant to prevent South Asia and Middle East to fall under the complete Russian influence.

The present situation of Syria and the American turnabout there, followed by the budding détente between the West and Iran, has placed the region at the precipice of another historic transformation. The Gulf States, especially Saudi Arabia, are now deeply worried about western intentions related to the Arab Spring and the campaign against extremists. While they were happy at the removal of rogues like Saddam and Qaddafi, the way Mubarak was shown the door, deeply troubled the Saudis. Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on Feb 19, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns laid out these worries in the following words:

“The reality is that in our conversations with our Gulf partners, we don’t always see eye-to-eye on what has caused the revolutions and transitions spurred by the second Arab Awakening. We don’t always see eye-to-eye on the direction these transitions should take. And we don’t always see eye-to-eye on how best to respond to them.”

The Saudis in particular are now convinced that it cannot sit ideally by as everything else around them changes at an alarming pace. Meanwhile, recent reports indicate that Pakistan has changed its posture on Syria in the aftermath of recent high-level exchanges between the military and political leadership of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. However, what does this change signify?

In the past, Pakistan’s ties with Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey have been defined mostly by the policies of the global powers, especially the West and the US. As the American support moved away from Iran in the 80s, so did Pakistan’s direction. The question now becomes, as the West’s détente with Iran progresses, will it translate in to a similar switch for Pakistan, away from the Arabs and closer to Iran. The present atmosphere presents several challenges in this regard.

Because of the war against terror and card blanche support for Israeli policies in the past, the US and the West have suffered considerable loss of popular support in the Islamic regions. This has produced two obvious consequences: on the one hand major Muslim nations have started to diversify their ties with the emerging powers of BRICS. On the other hand, negative western perceptions have allowed Russia and China space to make inroads. For example, Russia is attempting to reestablish defense ties with its former allies Iraq and Egypt. In case of Pakistan, worries related to Afghanistan, volatile situation of FATA and Baluchistan, and US-India strategic ties, have convinced Pakistan to tie the strategic knot with China.

While Turkey remained independent when it came to matters of Iraq in the past, this stance has been difficult to maintain over the affairs of Syria. Like the Gulf nations, Turkey also wants Assad removed, but at the same time, it has maintained and expanded economic ties with Iran, unlike Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, Turkey has supported Mursi and Palestinian Hamas, in stark contrast to Saudi policies and in support of Iranian posture. While Turkey is a NATO member, it has also been opening up to Chinese and Russian dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

The potential change in Pakistan’s position over Syria places it at odds with the non-intervention stance of China and Russia. Moreover, it creates friction with Iran, whose assistance will be needed for the full materialization of Pakistan’s regional vision. In effect, by recruiting Pakistan, Saudi Arabia is building pressure on the US for the removal of Assad, who is backed by Iran and Russia, whether it requires diplomatic or military means. While India had also maintained a non-intervention position previously, it had to revert in consideration of its strategic ties with Israel and the US, and growing economic interests in the Gulf region.

Moving forward, and in historical perspective, three strategic priorities of the West need to be considered and evaluated.

  • Is it more important for the West to contain Iran’s nuclear program, or to remove Assad? The Syrian leader has already agreed to eliminate the chemical weapons under a Russian engineered agreement.
  • Moreover, to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace, whose role is more important: Iran or Saudi Arabia? It’s Iran that has sway over Syria, Hezbollah and increasingly Hamas.
  • Furthermore, while China and Russia have ties with both the Sunni and Shia regimes; the West has greatly undermined its maneuverability by not having relations with Iran.

What to do?

Pakistan’s response to the changing Middle East is the regional cooperation with India, Afghanistan, Iran, China, and Central Asia. However its economic dependence means it would have to once again play a balancing act. The challenge being if the security and viability of Saudi Arabia, and GCC, is indeed threatened by forces linked to AQ, Arab Spring, or Iran, will it be able to maintain its neutrality.

As a result of risks being faced by the Core Arab Islamic region, these nations will seek the assistance of periphery. The same can also be said of the West, which is attempting to build strategic ties with Indonesia and India, as part of the pivot to the Pacific. There is continuity in the western policy of both propping Iran’s influence, and at the same time, preventing it from becoming a dominant power in the Middle East. In Afghanistan, this has translated in to checking any single player from overshadowing, whether that is Iran or Pakistan. And, lately Indian influence has been introduced as a balancing factor.

However, its best for the periphery to serve as a bridge to develop understanding between the differing stakeholders, Iran and Saudi Arabia, as oppose to serve a military wing for one or the other power. The past experience in this regard has proven to be devastating.

So, if the security risks envisioned by the Saudis do come true, will Pakistan once again follow the precedence set by Jinnah, is too early to say. As far as Turkey is concerned, it is very careful not to make the mistake of choosing the wrong side as it did in World War I, or get caught in a wedge between Iran and Saud Arabia. This is also a good lesson for Pakistan, irrespective of its economic pressures; it should join hands with the Turks in preventing the Shia-Sunni proxy war from engulfing the entire region.

Looking back, 1979 proved to be a watershed year; with the insertion of religion in both the Iranian revolution and Afghan jihad, secularism took a back seat. To this date, the two events have transformed and divided the politics of the region, and also resulted in the birth of Al Qaeda that now plaques pretty much the entire Islamic world. Sunni and Shia extremist forces now bedevil the whole landscape. While Hezbollah enjoys the support of Iran, since 9/11, AQ is a disowned child but the same cannot be said about some of its affiliates. In places like Syria, the finale of the phenomena appears to be a confrontation between Hezbollah and the AQ linked extremists. The regions concerned need to first of all prepare to prevent this, and secondly, to deal with its consequences if they are unable to avert it.

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