The last week has been a tense one for Pakistan. In the backdrop of that, there have been developments on the international scene; whose key players incidentally are the states from whom Pakistan has been influenced in one way or another. The rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, courtesy China, is a game changing development. Its minute details also illustrate the fact that Pakistan’s importance has vanished gradually, even for its friends.
To compare; in the backdrop of the post-1965 period, when China helped Pakistan in overcoming the military sanctions from the USA and equipped Pakistan with its ground and air gadgetry. The favor, which Pakistan returned in a way with helping China open up with the United States; Kissinger’s secret flight to the then Peking; on board a PIA jet. This time when China must have been thinking over finding intermediaries for talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia, it was not Pakistan, which China engaged; rather it was Iraq and Oman, to say the least.
In the backdrop of the teargas-filled theatrics taking place in major cities of the country, the country might actually be heading towards the electoral process at last. Given the fact that the USA and Pakistan need each other, it might also influence which civilian leader can be an asset for looking forward into a stable relationship. Towards that end, much is left to the respected readers to sort out
Coming back to the recent deal; the result of that diplomatic exercise has been a big decision of the two ideological states; trying to find ways to live with each other in a manner that ensures stability in the region. Iran and Saudi Arabia, in plain words, have vowed to bury the differences and make a new beginning. That beginning initiative has found skeptics; who feel that the agreement is a nonstarter. Furthermore, it has drawn flak from the ‘extremist’ elements; who feel that their wholesale and retail shops of hate and divide will be closed indefinitely as the consequence of that diplomatic beginning.
On the international scene, analysts are not wrong in pointing out that the USA has been caught off guard by the Chinese in economic and geostrategic terms. The Chinese intervention for peace between its two major trading partners has strengthened the Chinese image as a positive diplomatic force in the economic world. Compared to that the USA’s image as a power which ‘discourages’ trade through sanctions and proxy wars has been reinforced. Everyone in the world knows that if the Sheikhdoms are left to fend for themselves; they will certainly mend fences with non-Arab powers like the Turks and Iranians. Rapprochement between Saudis and Turks has been moving ahead despite the fact that both countries have been serious contenders for the leadership of the Sunni world. It has been the Iranian-Saudi file for the leadership of the Ummah, which has been long unattended and the one, which was scribbled through by the Chinese.
Another possible impact on the international scene; the amicable settlement in Yemen to the advantage of all sides, the simmering political crisis in Bahrain; another theatre where Iranians and Saudis had locked horns since long, can be the positive takeaways within the Muslim body. For the Israeli state; it is a complex game; where it might have to start afresh to safeguard its goals. Until the Chinese intervention, it has been a foregone conclusion that Saudis will be leading the strike package for any anti-Iranian military initiative if the need arises. With the diplomatic opening on card and possible resumption of direct flights between Tehran and Riyadh as discussed in Iranian media, the Saudi support to any JCPOA failure-related military participation would be a doubtful affair. That situation can potentially force the Israeli decision makers to act in haste; go for behind-the-scene stealth operations and other cvert aggressive tactics. Any such eventuality will certainly cause geopolitical tension in the region, but its impact will be more like the 1967 war when Muslim world, inclusive of the pro-west Iran, was united against Israel.
The impact on Pakistan will be an interesting development to watch. Pakistan has been a battleground of ideas and beliefs since the two states Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran locked horns; partly over leadership of the Muslim body and partly due to divergent worldviews. That divergence became more pronounced with the relative identity of the foundation scripture identified as Sunni sourced and Shia sourced. In both the states, the role of clergy is confirmed though its modalities are differently placed.
It will be an encouraging development, if the warring factions call it a day and the sectarian element in politics, administration and everyday life of the Pakistani populace is minimized, if not eliminated. However, the damage done in the last four decades from either side will be difficult to erase and undo. Of critical importance will be the fence-mending clerics; whose efforts will be of critical importance going forward.
Turning to the geopolitical aspect, Pakistan is standing again in a 1979 era, for precisely similar reasons of engagement into the geopolitical plans. In 1979, the loss of Iran through the Islamic revolution left the USA with no anchor in the region. The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan could have been the deposed Shah’s prized assignment, if he has been around and not deposed in February 1979. The post-revolution government looked at the Afghan developments from its own perspective. The USA, after the natural demise of CENTOm was desperate to have friendly feet in the region. The Zia military government, already short of legitimacy, especially after the hanging of Bhutto in April 1979, was more than willing to align with the USA. While Carter, exhausted by the hostage crisis, had not much to offer to the Pakistanis, it was Ronald Reagan, the succeeding Republican US president, who practically enrolled Pakistan for the role, which was to be taken by Iran, if it had been in the US axis. However, the slack was taken up by Pakistan. The rest is ‘history of instability’.
Today, with China, Iran and Saudi Arabia all on one page; Pakistan, despite its claim of being China’s erstwhile friend, the Saudis’ brother in faith; and tied to Iran by similar cultural foundations, it is effectively out of the league. With the CPEC in shambles, China finds no attraction to re-engage Pakistan. With the Iranian gas pipeline getting rusty, Iran is not enthusiastic about Pakistanis. For the Saudis, Pakistan is little more than a beggar in need and that too a ‘clever beggar’.
For Pakistan, it seems like another 1979 moment. The USA will certainly try to reclaim whatever space it can have in the region. The Pakistani economic and geopolitical imperatives force it to look that way. In the backdrop of the standoff between the PTI chief Imran Khan and the PDM government, seeking his arrest from his Lahore residence, the Tweet of US top diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad sounded predictive. Khalilzad’s non-minced advice to the decision makers in Pakistan to call elections, avoid arrest of political leaders and create consensus on problem solving all indicate that the USA has stakes in a stable Pakistan, and in its civil and military leadership.
For Pakistan, the game plan is very clear. In the backdrop of the teargas-filled theatrics taking place in major cities of the country, the country might actually be heading towards the electoral process at last. Given the fact that the USA and Pakistan need each other, it might also influence which civilian leader can be an asset for looking forward into a stable relationship. Towards that end, much is left to the respected readers to sort out.