Iran-Pakistan: Time for Realpolitik over Riyal Politics

16 Apr, 2014    ·   4391

Rajeshwari Krishnamurthy recommends a balancing act in Pakistan’s relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia

Rajeshwari Krishnamurthy
Rajeshwari Krishnamurthy
Deputy Director
Although  the Jaish al-Adl (JA), a terrorist group that primarily operates from Pakistan’s Balochistan and Iran’s Sistan Baluchestan provinces, released four of the five Iranian border guards it had abducted and held captive in Pakistan – there are conflicting reports on the fate of the fifth – questions that need addressing are many.

The abduction of the border guards sparked tensions between Tehran and Islamabad but the leadership in both Iran and Pakistan ensured that the standoff was limited to a diplomatic row, with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif taking the case to the UN – with the fate of the border guards then still unclear – and despite Iranian Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli’s aggressive stance that Iran will “enter the country’s deep territory to establish security.”

What motivated the JA to free the guards? Did the Iran-Pakistan bilateral relationship play a role? What role did the Pakistan-Saudi Arabia nexus play? Is this standoff fuelled by factors other than the captured border guards?

Border Issue or a Larger Scheme?
Pakistan’s border with Iran is the only section of the country’s western frontier – or any frontier – that is relatively less tense. Iran is relatively stricter on its south-eastern border with Pakistan, and for its part, is intolerant of cross-border arms and drugs smuggling as compared to Pakistan. Iran’s reasons may lie within its own territory in Sistan Baluchestan – a restive Sunni-majority state in a Shia majority nation – but regardless, its records vis-à-vis cross-border issues are comparatively cleaner than Pakistan’s, and Islamabad appreciates it.

To antagonise Tehran will be damaging for Islamabad, for it was with Iranian assistance that the Baloch separatist movement was crushed – a crucial win for Pakistan at that period in history. However, simultaneously, Pakistan does not control all the militant groups running amok in the country, especially the south; and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s inability to control them completely, or do away with sectarian violence meted out to the Shia Muslims in Pakistan have resulted in frustration.

What Motivated the JA to Release the Guards?
Islamabad, for the aforementioned reasons, did what it could in the current circumstances of its internal security problems – especially the dillydallying talks with the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). However, Pakistan’s sincerity and perseverance were not the only reasons for the JA to release the guards. The JA likely got their motivation for their action from further west. Here, the curious case of ‘friendly grants’ and ‘unconditional gifts’ from one of the most potent players in Pakistani politics, Saudi Arabia, needs attention. With the allegedly Saudi-funded Jundallah having fallen silent, the relatively new Jaish al-Adl seems to be a replacement.

It is possible that Pakistan successfully managed to negotiate with Saudi Arabia to ensure some form of stability in its southern borders. What Saudi Arabia managed to get in return as its share of the bargain, however, needs some probing; and the likelihood of a further surge in the spread of Wahabi ideology can be expected. 

Furthermore, reports that the guards were released in exchange for Iran’s release of eight JA members from Iran’s Zahedan prison hints at the JA’s negotiating powers. If the funders of the group are in Riyadh or elsewhere in that country – which seems likely – the JA is likely to remain undefeated for a while.

Iran-Pakistan Relations: Saudi Spoiler
Islamabad’s cancellation of the Iran-Pakistan ‘Peace Pipeline’ project over dubious reasons, among several others, epitomises the current status of influence the Saudi Riyal has over Pakistan’s foreign policy. The spate of attacks on Pakistan’s Shia and other minority communities can also be attributed to the same factor. Wahabism is on the rise in Pakistan and Islamabad cannot control it; and Rawalpindi will not be too concerned as long as it knows it can handle it.

This coupled with the reports of Pakistan selling small arms and fighter jets to Saudi Arabia – fuelling debate on the potential of Pakistani munitions being used by the rebels in the Syrian civil war – have only soured Iran-Pakistan relations. Already, Pakistani rebels are reported to be participating in the civil war.

Iran-Pakistan-Saudi Arabia
In this backdrop, Nawaz Sharif’s upcoming visit to Tehran is significant: it has the potential to either kick-start a new era of bilateral relations, or to ruin it forever. The Iranian parliament’s approval of a bill on cooperating with Pakistan on security issues signals movement in the positive direction. Though the likelihood of success may be bleak, Pakistan must remember that it shares an approximately 900 km-long border with Iran. Furthermore, it needs a friendly Iran standing guard in the post-2014 Afghanistan.

Riyadh may want to alienate Tehran and Islamabad from each other to meet its own goals, and Pakistan may feel obliged to obey. Iran and Saudi Arabia may not even want to come closer. However, in an event of any form of conflagration between the two, Pakistan will suffer the most casualties. Therefore, practically speaking, Islamabad would benefit from playing mediator between Tehran and Riyadh.

It is time for realpolitik to take precedence over ‘Riyal politics’.