EDITORIAL: Pakistan’s strategic interest in Iran
The Foreign Office spokesman, Masood Khan, said Monday that “Pakistan hoped the United States would sort out its differences with Iran through talks” and that Pakistan “would object to any assault on Iranian interests”. The spokesman “counselled against war on Iran” while expressing the opinion that it was doubtful if the United States would “strike against Iran”. The official Pakistani comment came in the wake of news that the European Union’s negotiations with Iran on the nuclear non-proliferation issue might not have set at rest American suspicion that Iran was moving in the direction of nuclear weapons development. Indeed, the fact is that Iran has figured as a candidate for American intervention long before Iraq happened.
Pakistan, however, has its own strategic dynamic to consult. During the Afghan (civil) war Pakistan and Iran were on the opposite sides, but since 2001 the situation has changed considerably. Pakistan now looks at Iran somewhat as ASEAN looks at the “objectionable” state of Myanmar: an important prospective trading partner where an externally imposed war would mean a lot of trouble in the neighbourhood. Not long ago, the editorials in Tehran were bitter against Pakistan; they may even now be flecked with dissatisfaction, but the two counties have been thinking of a South Asian economic connection in the shape of a gas pipeline. The project was actually born in the midst of bilateral bad odour caused by a proxy sectarian war in Pakistan and a Pak-Iran competition for trade routes to Central Asia.
Pakistan today looks at Iran purely as a potential economic partner in the region. This is a change from the recent past when the Gulf and Saudi Arabia, and not Iran, qualified for such a relationship. The factor responsible for this change is above all the shaking of the power kaleidoscope in the wake of Afghanistan and Iraq wars and Pakistan’s own internal economic needs. In fact, Iran promises to become so important to Pakistan economically that any possible attack on Iran should make the strategists in Islamabad think of the negative fallout in terms of the country’s economic future. There is nothing remarkable about the bilateral Pak-Iran trade today but the potential in the sector of energy is crucial.
Pakistan has been discussing energy supply plans with Iran, Qatar, Turkmenistan, India, Afghanistan and the Asian Development Bank since 1990. It is estimated that Pakistan will face a shortfall in gas of about 1,000 million cubic feet per day by 2007-08. The power sector would be the major user of the gas in the years to come and its gas demand will play a crucial role in determining and firming up future gas demand. Qatar and Central Asia as sources of gas supply to Pakistan have become problematic, Afghanistan having persisted as the domain of disorder cutting off Turkmenistan, and the Qatar project having hung fire because of lack of data on the pipeline’s sea route and Qatar’s own gas field block.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz seems to have ended the period of indecision by announcing that Pakistan is going for the Iranian project. His thinking must have run on the following lines: Pakistan will not only soon need to produce power exclusively from gas, but might have to think of converting the big transport network in the country from petrol to gas if its major cities have to be truly functional, especially during the fog season in winter. He must have also thought that India is bound to opt for the Iranian pipeline once it becomes certain that the alternative sources are not really advantageous to India. It doesn’t matter that, in the eyes of the United States, Iran threatens peace in the Middle East, it matters to Pakistan that it might be responsible for bringing peace in South Asia.
On Iran, the European Union (EU) and the United States have been following two different strands of policy. The EU and the US are conscious of their divided strategy on Iran, but they need to work together if Iran is to be convinced that there is persuasion behind non-proliferation. So far, however, Tehran seems to be working under the assumption that the two are divided and it may even be working towards splitting the two. Meanwhile, the US needs to resist the advice of those who want tough options after the failure of past policy. Iran’s own internal dynamic has positioned the Islamic Revolutionary Guards as the virtual political and economic rulers of the country, which means that any military challenge is likely to provoke a totally inflexible response.
Any drastic change in Iran as a result of an American invasion will predictably create conditions somewhat similar to those created by the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Therefore Pakistan’s interest in keeping the US from attacking Iraq is perfectly understandable. Since the world is more or less united in this preventive endeavour, the EU needs to draw closer to the US on Iran, keeping in mind all the time that it is the rise of Islamic Revolutionary Guards that has introduced ambivalence in Ayatollah Khamenei’s edict that nuclear weapons are banned by Islam. The ambivalence on the part of the guardians of the nuclear non-proliferation regime — the EU and the US — must end in favour of a clear message to Tehran. *