PHOTO: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani smiles as he is greeted by Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif last month — but was he the big loser in the “balancing game”?
Umar Karim writes for EA:
In the last month, there has been an outbreak of “warm hugs” and “historical brotherly love” from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia — at least in summits and statements. The Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, has visited Islamabad, while Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi journeyed to the Saudi kingdom.
Beyond the photo opportunities, the summits, which came within a week of each other, were more about a “Great Balancing Game”. Arch-rivals India and Pakistan are maneuvering for position amid shifting Middle Eastern and Asian conflicts in which Iran and Saudi Arabia are jockeying for political, diplomatic, and military supremacy.
But who fared best in the “balancing”? And who, far from bolstering position, may have found that the outcome is the risk of isolation?
The priority which dictates Pakistan’s political engagement in the Middle East, other than religion, is its national security vis-à-vis India. There is a natural reluctance to bolster political ties with countries that enjoy strategic and defense partnerships with India.
However, this priority has been joined, if not overtaken, by the need to negotiate the tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran. With Riyadh expecting a show of support, Pakistan joined the 34-country Islamic alliance and participated in the Northern Thunder military exercise.
At the same time, due to geopolitical realities and a sensitive sectarian balance, Pakistan cannot afford to have a strained relationship with Iran. So it has refused to join the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen.
It was in this environment that Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani visited Pakistan in late March. He was welcomed warmly but chances of strategic or security agreements were shattered by the arrest of an Indian spy, Kulbhushan Yadav, allegedly carrying an Iranian visa.
India is a rising economy in Asia with its huge market attracting global investment, but this industrialization can only be sustained with a secure energy base.
That is a motive for India’s broad political, economic, and strategic engagement with Iran, but New Delhi also wants to strengthen geo-strategic ties with Gulf countries, tap into their petro-industry, and loosen their historically strong political relations with Pakistan.
India is trying to enhance its engagement with Saudi Arabia in intelligence-sharing and security cooperation. During the visit of the Indian Prime Minister, a joint statement declared, “The two leaders expressed strong condemnation of the phenomenon of terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, irrespective of who the perpetrators were and of their motivations.” For India, this statement was a big victory in its narrative of Pakistan as a supporter of cross-border terrorism.
Locked in a political turf war in the Middle East with Saudi Arabia and its other Gulf allies, Tehran needs security and defense partners to consolidate its regional standing.
The current crises in the Middle East and Pakistan’s decision against involvement in the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen opened up space for Tehran to make inroads within Pakistani ranks. This in turn might push Saudi into a more conciliatory approach to the Islamic Republic.
But the expectations from President Rouhani’s visit were met by the concerns of the Pakistani security establishment, exacerbated by the exposure of the Yadav spy case, with India’s role in developing the Iranian port of Chabahar as a strategic asset. The failure of Rouhani to win any public show of agreements may push Tehran to reconsider its diplomatic strategy as well as the pursuit of investment and trade links.
Since the ascent of King Salman to the throne, Saudi Arabia has adopted an aggressive and pro-active foreign policy against Iran, trying to isolate Tehran in the region. The kingdom is also aware of its own economic difficulties and a pressing need to find new markets for its petro-exports.
India’s rapidly-industrializing economy, needing energy resources and investment, is an ideal opportunity. Getting a share in the Indian energy market would both meet Riyadh’s economic objectives and balance New Delhi’s strategic relationship with the Islamic Republic.
Yet, mindful of Pakistani reservations, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir is also emphasizing that Riyadh’s relationship with India will not be at the expense of long-standing ties with Pakistan.
Balancing’s Winners and Losers
For Pakistan, a stronger Indo-Saudi partnership is a much bigger concern than India-Iran ties. That perspective probably buttressed the decision to expose the “Indian spy” Yadav during President Rouhani’s visit. Islamabad might risk pushing India and Iran closer with the humiliation, but it also signaled to Saudi Arabia an appreciation of the region’s security and political dynamics.
If successful, the display will balance the Indian drive to lure Saudi investment, tapping into the petroleum industry and encouraging some distance from Pakistan. Significantly, while Prime Minister Modi’s visit brought the agreement on sharing intelligence and combating terrorism, it failed to get any significant defense deal that might have worried Pakistanis.
The winner so far might be Saudi Arabia. The kingdom has managed to get into the Indian market and serve a large portion of New Delhi’s energy needs at the expense of Iran, while maintaining its relationship with Pakistan. The counter-terrorism agreement with New Delhi can be framed as a concern with Iran, rather than Islamabad, especially with Pakistan as part of the Saudi 34-nation “Islamic Alliance”. The dispatch of the Saudi Speaker of the al-Shura Council to Pakistan, immediately after the Indian Prime Minister’s visit, reaffirms that message.
Still, India can claim an opening with Riyadh. So the biggest losing in the balancing game appears to be Iran.
Tehran’s strategic partner India is moving into the arms of Saudis. The Islamic Republic has not had any success in drawing away Saudi’s ally Pakistan. And all of this occurs as Iran is drawn more and more into the morass of the Syrian civil war.
Ahead of his visit to Pakistan last month, President Rouhani addressed the Pakistani people:
I believe that, at this crucial moment of the history of relations between two countries, it is essential for Pakistan and Iran, on the basis of decades long experience of friendly relations, should lay the cornerstone of a new bilateral engagement based on the mutual interests of the two countries.
Rouhani was partially right but also dangerously wrong. It is a “crucial moment”, but not just for “bilateral engagement”. In the multilateral game being played, the President’s engagement — not to mention his domestic position — may be struggling to succeed.