The Emerging Pakistani Factor in the Iran Nuclear Equation

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi

The Iran nuclear talks, due to resume on April 7th, have already been jolted by the explicit Russian warning that it may change its approach toward the Iran nuclear issue in light of the Western sanctions against Russia over Crimea. While it remains to be seen if Moscow will 'compartmentalize' the Ukraine issue from the Middle East issues or link them together as threatened, rising tensions between Iran and (nuclear-armed) Pakistan constitute another dark cloud hovering over the talks. Without doubt, the Iranian-Pakistani relationship is a complicating factor that cannot be sidestepped when considering the core issues related to a comprehensive, final-status nuclear negotiation between Iran and the world powers. Rather, it raises the issue of regional security, which may need to be integrated in the on-going talks, as it was in earlier negotiations.

In Tehran, there is a growing concern that relations with Islamabad may be headed in the wrong direction, thus exacerbating Iran's national security worries.  If the relations between the two countries continue to deteriorate as they have recently, then it is a sure bet that Iran's calculation of "containing the threat from Pakistan" will change, possibly with a nuclear dimension. Such a drastic ”re-mapping” of the Iranian national security outlook in favor of maintaining a latent or proto-nuclear status is not yet in the cards, yet is completely feasible in a relatively short period of time depending on the new level of threat from Pakistan perceived in Iran. (For background on Iran-Pakistan relations click here).

At bottom, Tehran's 'threat perception' regarding Pakistan stems from a new strategic nexus between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, as reflected in the recent flurry of visits to Pakistan by high ranking Saudi defense officials, the Saudis' generous $1.5 billion dollar "gift" to Pakistan, and unconfirmed reports of a new Saudi-Pakistan military cooperation agreement concerning the shipment of Pakistani arms to Syrian rebels. This is not to mention last month's visit to Islamabad by the Saudi-backed King of Bahrain, seeking Pakistan's help against Iran. According to the Pakistani newspaper, Dawn (March 21st): "Pakistan helped it [Bahrain] in putting down the revolt [in Bahrain] by allowing Bahrain to recruit retired security personnel for its security forces." The big question is, of course, how far the present Pakistani government can accommodate itself to an anti-Iran proxy role along the Sunni-Shiite fault line, and will such accommodation ever go as far as the Pakistani-Saudi nuclear sharing dreaded by Iran?

Officially, Pakistan is seeking to mediate between Tehran and Riyadh and follow "a neutral policy on Syria," to paraphrase Sartaj Aziz, key foreign policy advisor to the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.  But actions speak louder than words and, so far, compared to the "new heights" in bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia, Sharif's government has done little to improve relations with Iran. Indeed, despite their recent release, relations have not been helped by the February kidnapping of five Iranian border guards by Jaish al-adl (Army of Justice), which operates from inside Pakistan and which has claimed responsibility for killing one of the guards. Iran is equally concerned about a new Pakistani "proxy role" in Syria in light of a rumored Pakistan-Saudi military cooperation agreement that calls for Islamabad's arms shipment to Syrian rebels via Saudi Arabia. As stated in Pakistan's Daily Times (March 31st), "There is a strong suspicion that a secret cauldron is boiling in Pakistan regarding the fate of Syria."

In addition to Iran accusing Pakistan of inaction vis-a-vis anti-Iran terrorists using its territory as sanctuary, the Iran-backed Karzai government in Kabul has leveled similar accusations against Pakistan. Iran's President Hassan Rouhani visited Kabul and Iran views Karzai's complaint that Pakistan is supporting the "terrorists" and hindering the peace talks with the Taliban as credible. If Pakistan persists with its present pro-Saudi, anti-Kabul policy, then a closer Iran-India relationship (and a corresponding Iran-India-Afghanistan axis) will inevitably take shape in the proximate future. 

Economically, the new tensions between the two countries, who are the founding members of the regional organization, Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), have harmful effects, particularly since, for the energy-starved Pakistan, Iran remains its "only hope for gas supply," to quote from Pakistan's newspaper, Nation (March 29th). Yet, the prospects of Sharif's government defying the U.S. and Saudi and Israeli pressure and going forward with the gas pipeline from Iran are marginal at best. Instead, a steady deterioration of relations between Iran and Pakistan in 2014 and beyond is more likely, which as stated above is likely to alter Iran's threat perception and the defense needs attached to it. In turn, the emerging Pakistani factor in Iran's nuclear equation is in dire need of close scrutiny by the negotiators in the Iran multilateral talks.

*Kaveh Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of several books on Iran’s foreign policy. His writings have appeared on several online and print publications, including UN Chronicle, New York Times, Der Tagesspiegel, Middle East Journal, Harvard International Review, and Brown's Journal of World Affairs, Guardian, Russia Today, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Globe, Mediterranean Affairs, Nation, Telos, Der Tageszeit, Hamdard Islamicus, Iranian Journal of International Affairs, Global Dialogue.

Source: Source: Iran Matters-Harvard Belfer Center

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*Photo Credit: Press TV

*These views represent those of the author and are not necessarily Iran Review's viewpoints.