The deal is a done deal now. Iran makes a comeback into the world order and with its demographics, hydrocarbon resources, skilled manpower and geographical location will soon be the dominant player in the Middle East region. The deal opens for Iran the world of international trade and diplomacy from pariah state to regional power player once again after four decades. My fear is that just when this Iran-west rapprochement was in the offing, the state of Pakistan was taken off-guard.
Going beyond cosmetics, the US-Iran nuclear deal is based on an array of mutual interests and strategic objectives. For one, with Islamic State (IS) being the imminent threat in the Middle East, a Shia Iran is definitely a more reliable partner than a Salafi Saudi Arabia. Second, Iran, with its vast gas and oil reserves, has a high commercial value for the world economy. Third, with the energy reserves of the Middle East spread around mostly Shia populated regions Iran helps consolidate those interests. Fourth, Iran is central to stabilising Iraq not only because of Iraq’s large Shia population but also because of the three countries the Kurdish population is spread between Iran, Iraq and Turkey the Kurds find Iran the most trustworthy of the three. And, finally, one really would not think the US would ignore that 11 of the 19 hijackers of 9/11 were Saudi born and would overlook that the region has a serious problem in need of correction. Of course, they could not alienate the Saudis right away but they did start restoring the regional balance of power step-by-step. No wonder the seeds of the current deal with Iran were sown by the Bush regime.
So, where does this leave Pakistan? For one, the good news is that the deal halts the progress of Iran on the path to acquiring nuclear weapons, which would have been disastrous for Pakistan. The deal also offers a whole range of possibilities in trade and cooperation not only with Iran but also with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations. But that is where it ends. Pakistan’s biggest problem with availing any of those opportunities will be that ever since the time of Mr Bhutto, the lines between the security relations with GCC nations have been blurred. Unfortunately, our role for GCC nations, particularly Saudi Arabia, became more of a rented apparatus than of a military power offering security and protection. A lot of interests were harboured in Pakistan that adulterated the state’s policy in the guise of sectarian alignment; this all happened when Iran was a pariah in the international community and could do little to retaliate. But with this deal the tables have turned. For instance, having a regime with a specific sectarian tilt towards Kabul was more likely in those times because of the west’s distrust of Tehran. But with the changing environment, it will be impossible to back any such faction in Afghanistan unilaterally.
And just when Pakistan is working on a few initiatives to rebalance its Middle Eastern policy through engagement in Afghanistan and the gas pipeline, it is the rented interests that stall any meaningful policy shift needed to adjust to the emerging realities. For instance, in the case of the Yemen crisis, Pakistan’s role has been either apologetic to the Saudis or passive at best. Similarly, the Iran-Pakistan gas project was abruptly halted by the present government on what is attributed to Saudi pressure. Above all, one sees no realisation among Pakistan’s policymakers of present, both military and civilian, of the need for a new security order for the Middle East in which Pakistan has an important yet delicate role.
A stable Middle East requires active Pakistani engagement without any taint of sectarian bias. The role requires convincing GCC nations of emerging regional realities while assuring them of security cooperation against any hegemonic designs. It also requires engaging with the Iranians for a more stable balance of power in the region while minimising the impact of sectarian flash points. And, above all, it requires being part of a broader regional plan to combat the emerging threat of IS, which threatens Iran, Pakistan and GCC monarchies alike. This will require cooperating with GCC nations on a wide array of social and political reforms.
As things stand right now, among GCC nations, Qatar will look more towards Turkey for security and diplomacy. The UAE and Oman will find it easier to open up with Iran and will be looking for Pakistan’s embrace for their security requirements. Kuwait will look for Saudi Arabia. And my view is that, ultimately, the tribal wisdom of the Saudi regime will make it adapt to the new emerging realities. Saudis will most likely adjust and adapt; the real question is will those rented by them in Pakistan adapt or not? In that lies the answer to whether the deal is a challenge for Pakistan or an opportunity. The elephant is already in the room.