Pakistan receives warning from Iran not to join Saudi proxy war

Pakistan receives warning from Iran not to join Saudi proxy war

Micha’el Tanchum,
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Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman riding in a carriage during a welcome ceremony in Islamabad. February 18, 2019. Photo: AFP

Pakistan has received a stern warning from Iran’s Major-General Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Qods Force and other senior in the aftermath of the February 13, 2019 attack on their forces by Iranian Baluch militants in the country’s restive Sistan and Baluchistan province bordering Pakistan.

The new tone from Tehran is a response to Pakistan’s recent tilt back toward Saudi Arabia since Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan assumed office six months ago.

Tehran is the deeply concerned over its vulnerability to the threat posed by a Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates-sponsored proxy war conducted across Iran’s eastern border from Pakistan. Tehran’s messaging through the Guard Corps commanders’ remarks were intended to deter this development by putting Pakistan on notice that it would pay a severe cost for joining any Saudi-UAE effort against Iran.

Five days after the attack in Iranian Baluchistan conducted by Jaish al-Adl (‘Army of Justice’), whom the Iranian’s claim is supported by Saudi Arabia, Prime Minister Imran Khan rolled out the red carpet for Saudi Prince Mohammed Bin Salman on the occasion of his historic two-day visit. The timing of Imran Khan’s five-star treatment of MBS, as the crown prince is commonly known, was a telling sign for Iran – indicating a sharp break from the orientation set by Khan’s predecessor Nawaz Sharif. During his third, non-consecutive tenure as Pakistan’s prime minister from 2013 to 2017, then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif attempted to tilt Pakistan’s foreign policy away from its dependence on Saudi Arabia and strike a more balanced position between Riyadh and Tehran. Islamabad was able to sustain this shift because of a massive influx of Chinese investments into Pakistan starting in April 2015. Initially $46 billion and now totaling $60 billion, China’s package of infrastructure investments aims to establish the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), extending from the Gwadar port on Pakistan’s Indian Ocean coast to China’s westernmost city Kashgar (Kashi) in Xinjiang.

As part of this package, China agreed to construct most of Pakistan’s portion of the Iran-Pakistan (IP) natural gas pipeline. Financed by a $2 billion Chinese loan, covering 85 percent of the construction cost, Beijing signed an agreement with Islamabad to construct a pipeline from Pakistan’s Chinese-built Gwadar port to Nawabshah, where it can join Pakistan’s domestic gas distribution network. A boon for energy-starved Pakistan, the IP pipeline would deliver enough gas from Iran’s massive South Pars field to generate 4,500MW of electricity, covering Pakistan’s then total shortfall in power production.

Flushed with Chinese investments and expecting to receive desperately needed natural gas from Iran, the government of Nawaz Sharif repeatedly rejected Riyadh’s requests to send Pakistani troops to Yemen to assist in the Saudi Arabia’s proxy war with Iran. The stunning turn-around in policy came on the heels of greater counter-terrorism cooperation between the Sharif government and Tehran. In June 2014, Pakistan’s military launched the massive Operation Zarb-e Asb against the Taliban and the associated nexus of anti-Shiʻi, Sunni extremist organizations – many of whom had longstanding links toJaish al-Adl, the Islamist successor to Jundallah (‘Army of God’) the Baluchi ethno-nationalist militant organization that launched an insurgency in southeastern Iran in 2000. In the same period as Operation Zarb-e Asb, Islamabad reportedly permitted Iranian forces to conduct raids on Pakistani soil, with Iranian helicopters and security vehicles frequently entering Pakistani territory in pursuit of Jaish ul-Adl militants. The three-year operation likewise represented a remarkable reversal as Nawaz Sharif had previously recognized the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan in 1997 during his second tenure as prime minister. The only other country that had recognized the Taliban was Saudi Arabia.

Pakistan’s recalibration toward Iran was short-lived. In July 2017, Nawaz Sharif was removed from office due to allegations based on information revealed in the 2016 Panama Papers. Imran Khan succeeded Sharif as Pakistan’s elected prime minister, following Khan’s electoral victory Pakistan’s July 25, 2018 elections. Under Khan’s premiership, Pakistan has returned to the Saudi fold.

On October 23, 2018, Saudi Arabia formally gave Pakistan a $6 billion economic bailout package consisting of a direct transfer of $3 billion to the State Bank of Pakistan to support its balance of payments and another $3 billion in deferred payments on oil imports. Two months later, the UAE followed suit and announced on December 21, 2018 that it would also transfer $3 billion to the State Bank of Pakistan to shore up Pakistan’s foreign currency reserves. The desperately needed financial infusions from the Riyadh and Abu Dhabi were intended to prevent Pakistan’s currency from entering into freefall as Islamabad engaged in bailout talks with the International Monetary Fund.

Subsequently on January 12, 2019, Saudi Arabia announced that it would join CPEC by constructing a $10 billion oil refinery in at the Gwadar port. Being the first third-party country to join CPEC, Saudi Arabia deftly nullified any benefit Iran’s relations with Pakistan derived from CPEC, leaving the future of the IP pipeline in limbo. Riyadh’s current aid and investment package for Pakistan now totals $20 billion making Saudi Arabia, along with the UAE, indispensable to Pakistan’s economic survival.

In Baluchistan, this re-alignment seems to already be manifesting itself. A February 13 Baluchi terrorist attack, which claimed 40 Iranian Revolutionary Guard victims, has been pointed to by Iran as evidence of a nexus between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, with Pakistan potentially acceding to the use of its territory by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to support Baluch militants.

Speaking a week after the attack at a ceremony in northern Iran, Major-General Soleimani rhetorically addressed the Pakistani government and asked, “Are you, who have atomic bombs, unable to destroy a terrorist group with several hundred members in the region?” After denouncing the alleged Saudi financing of the militants’ operations and decrying its harmful effects on Pakistan, Soleimani then continued by putting the Pakistanis on notice. “I warn you not to test Iran and anyone who has tested Iran has received a firm response,” Soleimani continued, “We are telling that country [Pakistan] not to allow their borders to become a source of insecurity for the neighboring countries.”

With Pakistan more firmly tethered to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, Jaish ul-Adl’s February 13th attacked raised alarm bells for Tehran. While Saudi Arabia and the UAE may insist on greater cooperation from Pakistan for the effort to defeat Iranian-sponsored Houthi forces in Yemen, it is quite likely that the anti-Iranian bloc will insist that Islamabad cease its counter-terrorism cooperation with Tehran. Beyond this minimal demand, Pakistan may be called upon to take a role in coordinating support for Jaish ul-Adl operations. Whether Pakistan becomes actively involved or merely accedes to the use of its territory, the status quo in Pakistan-Iran relations seems as if it is about to change.

Dr. Micha’el Tanchum is a Fellow at the Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, Hebrew University and non-resident, affiliated scholar with the Center for Strategic Studies at Başkent University in Ankara, Turkey (Başkent-SAM).

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