Pakistan’s next prime minister, Imran Khan, has been outspoken in his support for Iran. His PTI party backed the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and the permanent five members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany. Khan was strongly critical of U.S. President Donald Trump’s travel ban preventing the citizens of Iran and other Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, and congratulated Tehran for retaliating against its restrictions. In a 2017 interview, Khan called for better relations with Iran and reiterated that view in his victory speech following last week’s elections in Pakistan.
At first glance, this marks a paradigm shift. Pakistan has traditionally been an ally of Saudi Arabia, Iran’s nemesis in the Middle East. In the 1980s Islamabad and Riyadh teamed up with the United States to aid resistance fighters combating the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. After the Soviets withdrew and Afghanistan descended into civil war, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan backed the Taliban, while Iran supported their opponents, the Northern Alliance. When the Taliban murdered several Iranian diplomats in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i Sharif in 1998, Iran almost invaded Afghanistan.
But, despite this record, Pakistan and Iran have cooperated at times. The years immediately following Pakistani independence saw quite warm bilateral relations, aided by the fact that a number of Pakistan’s early leaders were Shia Muslims, first and foremost Pakistan’s founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. As Alex Vatanka writes in his book Iran and Pakistan, the frontier between Iran and Pakistan was settled early, in 1958, and has never been seriously disputed, unlike Pakistan’s contested borders with India and Afghanistan. Moreover, in 1971 the Shah of Iran backed Pakistan in its third war with India.
Recent years have seen renewed attempts at cooperation. The 2015 nuclear deal lifted sanctions on Iran, allowing it to trade more easily. Pakistan, eager to cash in on the economic opportunities, supported the deal. Then, in 2016, Iran’s President Rouhani agreed with his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, to boost annual bilateral trade to $5 billion and increase electricity supplies. Both countries have also expressed a willingness to complete the delayed Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline. Iran has also invited Pakistan to participate in its Chabahar port project and may join the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
There have also been moves to collaborate in the security sphere. In November 2017 General Bajwa, Pakistan’s army chief, made a three-day official visit to Tehran, the first trip of its kind for decades. And in July 2018 his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Bagheri, visited Pakistan, where officials discussed the possibility of co-producing defence equipment. Furthermore, Pakistan recently hosted a meeting of spy chiefs from Iran, Russia and China to address the threat posed by Islamic State in Afghanistan. Pakistan and Iran reportedly back the Taliban and both want a negotiated settlement of the US-led war there.
Pakistan’s pivot to Iran must have raised eyebrows in Gulf capitals. Indeed, relations between Pakistan and the GCC have been rocky in recent years. In 2015 Pakistan’s parliament voted against supplying troops to fight in the Saudi-led war in Yemen. This turned out to be a wise move, given the quagmire that has ensued there, but Islamabad’s Gulf allies felt betrayed. Then, in 2016, Pakistan signed a gas deal with Qatar and remained neutral when Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other nations boycotted Doha last summer, apparently because of Qatar’s ties to Iran.
In diplomatic terms, Pakistan has gravitated away from the Gulf. It opposed Saudi-backed moves to attack Syria in 2013, and also voted against sanctions on the Syrian regime. From its perch at the UN Human Rights Council, Pakistan has voted against resolutions supported by the Saudis, including one in March 2018 that extended the mandate of the special rapporteur on human rights in Iran. Iran’s Supreme Leader, meanwhile, has started mentioning Kashmir in his speeches. Previously Iran had viewed the Kashmir dispute as a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan.
Despite all this, Pakistan remains strongly allied with Saudi Arabia. In 2017 former Pakistan army chief, General Raheel Sharif, was appointed to lead a new counter-terrorism alliance run out of Riyadh. Bajwa has visited Saudi Arabia many times, and the two countries’ militaries remain deeply connected. Although Pakistan has refused to participate in Yemen, it recently agreed to supply the Kingdom with troops, seemingly for internal security. There are also moves to boost economic ties: Saudi Arabia (which hosts many expatriate Pakistani workers) wants to increase trade and might invest in Gwadar port (part of CPEC).
Far from ditching its traditional Gulf alliances for a new partnership with Iran, Pakistan is trying to strike a balance between the two camps. This is what Imran Khan appears keen to continue. In his victory speech, he noted the importance of Pakistan’s relationship with Riyadh. “Saudi Arabia is a friend who has always stood by us in difficult times,” Khan said. “Our aim will be that whatever we can do for conciliation in the Middle East, we want to play that role.” Given the Pakistani military has been driving this policy of greater neutrality, Khan will have a powerful ally in realizing his aims.
However, bilateral relations still have a long way to go. Trade is nowhere near reaching the stated goal of $5 billion, hampered by sanctions on Iran (soon to be extended following Trump’s violation of the JCPOA) and derelict railway infrastructure, among other things. Pakistan remains dependent on Saudi Arabia for most of its oil. Moreover, Islamabad is facing an economic crisis and may need US support to secure IMF financing. Trump is fiercely opposed to Iran and will not be pleased if Pakistan cosies up to the regime there. In this context, Khan faces an uphill task and may well fail to deliver.
Rupert Stone is an independent journalist focusing on Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan.