Pakistan’s two-time former High Commissioner Wajid Shamsul Hasan reports on the region
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had a comfortable meeting with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in September. They talked of further economic cooperation between the two countries, including progress on the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, electricity imports from Iran and bilateral trade relations. The Iranian President also showed keen interest in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
One must give credit to Pakistan’s former President Asif Ali Zardari’s far sightedness for reaching a gas pipeline agreement with Iran, despite it being under severe American sanctions. It was a bold foreign policy initiative. If sincerely pursued, the Pak-Iranian gas pipeline would help overcome Pakistan’s energy shortages in the coming years.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s main priority at the UN General Assembly was to draw the attention of UN members to the growing tensions on the Line-of-Control in the Kashmir region and gross human rights violations. The Iranian President assured Pakistan that its security was of brotherly interest to Tehran.
In retrospect, looking at Iran-Pakistan relations post revolution, they have always been a matter for debate. But one thing is clear: our ties have been rooted in history that predates Pakistan as a nation. Language, art, architecture and close interaction between the people have been ingrained in the chemistry of Iran and Pakistan.
However, differences in political systems between the two countries, and the entry of Saudi Arabia as a challenger to Iranian Revolution has created a triangle, which if not handled properly could plunge the entire region into a quagmire. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had been a nightmare for Pakistan and created many formidable challenges, when it was already facing a perennial adversary on its eastern borders.
Following General Zia’s coup in 1977, (he deposed Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in a military coup following civil disorder), society was pushed into rocky territory of sectarianism, religious extremism and ethnicity — to conveniently divide and rule. A certain brand of Sunni sect was launched as a sort of state religion.
Religious parties and parties from the left were initially enthusiastic about the Iranian Revolution in 1979. But as it turned out, Jamaat-e-Islami – whose founder Maulana Maudoodi had found a common cause with late Ayatollah Khomeini and his Revolution – had a short honeymoon with the Iranian clergy.
Although enamoured by the Iranian Revolution, parties from the left took no time to distance themselves from the new leadership when it started targeting the secular forces inside Iran and declared Shiaism as an official religion in the new Iranian constitution.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan saw Iran supporting Shias among the Mujahideen that had been clobbered by Pakistan and the United States. Wahabi-Sunni Maulvis got on the American bandwagon while Iran supported a separate alliance of Mujahideen that was dominated by Shia and non-Pashtun parties. The result was obvious; post-Soviet Afghanistan was plunged into a fierce civil war between north and south.
Pakistan also chose sides in Afghanistan; Islamabad put all its eggs in the Pashtun basket, alienating others forcing them to seek support from India.
Saudi Arabia too played a major role in terms of support to the Afghan Sunni parties. For the Saudis, the Jihad in Afghanistan had twin objectives: one, to keep the infidel Soviets at bay and, two, to preempt Iranian revolutionaries from spreading their tentacles in the Gulf region.
However, the worst after-effects of the Afghan jihad was the birth of sectarian parties in Pakistan under the patronage of Iran and Saudi Arabia. Both ‘pillars’ of Islam fought their battle on Pakistani soil. For General Ziaul Haq, the rise of religious parties was a golden opportunity to create his own support and to crush the Pakistan People’s Party, his bête noire. Many Muslim sects had their own reasons to promote sectarianism in Pakistan. The Saudis saw Pakistan as the largest ‘Sunni’ country in the region, which could act as a bulwark against Iran’s perceived expansionist designs without sacrificing their own sweat or blood.
Iran, on the other hand, saw Pakistan as the second largest Shia population (after Iran) despite the fact that Shias make up only 25 per cent of the country. Nevertheless, they thought they could create substantive pro-Iranian support in Pakistan, and analysts claim they have done this. Predominantly Sunni media reports allege that the Shia revolutionary organisations have recruited Pakistani youths to fight ISIS/Daesh in Syria.
Interestingly, both Iran and Saudi Arabia swear by their friendship and brotherhood with Pakistan. This is true to the extent that they have stood by Pakistan whenever the country has been in dire straits. But both countries have become victims of their own sectarian rhetoric, especially at this crucial juncture in Middle Eastern politics when ISIS/Daesh is posing a mortal threat to the Gulf monarchies. These monarchies led by Saudi Arabia, with the support of Americans, have thrived in promoting their agendas. But they have not dealt with challenges inside their own countries or next door. Yemen is a case in point.
Instead of waiting for the UN Security Council to pronounce judgment, Saudi Arabia launched attacks on Yemen to put pressure on the US to abandon nuclear talks with Iran. Ironically, it was the five per cent Houthis minority that are supported by Iran that toppled the largely Hadi Yemeni government supposedly representing the 95 per cent Sunni majority. Saudis had to pay the price of ignoring Yemen when it needed their support both politically and economically.
The Americans are playing a dangerous game in the region. While they believe that Iran can effectively deal with the ISIS/Daesh threat in Syria and Iraq, they are also aware that the Saudis are not only incapable of meeting the threat but are also responsible in promoting Wahabism, which is now transformed into a divisive Takfiri ideology. Not only that, but the Americans are running with the hare and hunting with hound: they are selling arms to the Saudis and other Gulf states by the billions, while acknowledging Iran as a major power in the region.
Iran may for the time being project its successes in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, but if history is a guide, it should not repeat the mistakes the Soviets made. Militarily, the Soviet Union was not defeated in Afghanistan; it was the economic burden that broke the back of the superpower. The war in Afghanistan coupled with its liabilities in former Eastern Europe and Africa sapped its economic might helping to bring about its own demise.
Pakistan has learnt a couple of lessons from Saudi and Iranian rivalry. By not joining the Yemen war, Pakistan gave a clear signal to the entire region that it no longer can tolerate sectarian squabbles played by outsiders on its soil or elsewhere. Secondly, its message to Iran has been that its expansionist policies would ultimately consume its energies to the peril of its own people who have been suffering in isolation for the past three decades. Thirdly, an effective defence against ISIS/Daesh is only possible if all the countries of the region cut across their sectarian lines and join hands to defeat these forces of ignorance, which in turn are responsible for creating xenophobia against Islam and Muslims globally.
It is sad that the conflict between the two sides has contributed towards a clash of civilisations — a divided house of Islam pitched against a united, better organised, financially sound Judaist and Christian culture. Instead of fostering an overall peaceful co-existence on God’s little earth, it seems that a clash between rich and the poor – irrespective of religion – will dominate the twenty first century, and as we entered a century of terror, so it shall end with more terror.