April 18, 2022
In recent weeks, the Pakistani arena has witnessed accelerating and massive developments — starting with the efforts of Prime Minister Imran Khan to outwit his rivals’ attempts to put his government to a no-confidence vote in parliament by filing a request with the president of the republic to dissolve the legislative assembly. Khan’s wish came true, but the country’s Supreme Court ruled that the dissolution of parliament was unconstitutional, rendering the decision null and void. Consequently, a stormy parliamentary session led to a majority vote in favor of a withdrawal of confidence from Khan’s government, making Imran Khan the first prime minister in the country’s history to be forced to step down by a no-confidence vote. Last Monday, the parliament elected Shehbaz Sharif, the Muslim League Party leader, to replace Khan as prime minister.
Under Khan, relations between Tehran and Islamabad witnessed noticeable improvements, especially at the political and security levels, along with efforts to promote ties at the economic and commercial levels. Iran welcomed Khan’s approach, focusing on turning eastwards, enhancing Pakistan’s relations with Russia and China, and distancing the country from Iran’s adversaries and regional archrivals. Since the start of the latest political crisis, however, Tehran has avoided fiery statements, adopting a cautious position on the developments in its eastern neighbor.
Saeed Khatibzadeh, the spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, initially announced that his country was closely following the events in Pakistan, claiming that they were perfectly normal under the Pakistani parliamentary system. Khatibzadeh avoided Iran’s customary reaction of accusing any foreign entity of being behind the events, adding later that Iran respected the democratic and legal mechanisms enshrined in Pakistani law and that Iran “trusts and respects the choices of the Pakistani lawmakers.”
The Iranian official also expressed confidence that relations between Iran and Pakistan would continue regardless of any political changes. This declared position is based on a conviction among Iran’s leadership that despite the fact that a figure closer to the West and Iran’s foes than Khan had assumed power in Pakistan, there would be no substantial changes to Pakistani foreign policy toward Iran. While relations between Islamabad and Tehran won’t be as good as they were under Imran Khan, Iran believes, they won’t deteriorate to any appreciable level or reach their lowest levels because all Pakistan’s parties are aware that Pakistani interests at the political, security and geopolitical levels dictate that the country should maintain balanced relations with Tehran. They will not allow these relations to deteriorate to the worst possible level. It’s also possible that the challenges facing the new prime minister in the domestic arena will prevent him from making any radical changes in his country’s relations with Tehran. Iran’s leadership also believes that the existence of a significant Shiite minority in Pakistani society is an influential factor in dissuading any Pakistani government from embracing any hostile position toward Tehran.
Despite all these points, however, this does not mean that there is no uneasiness in Iran about the latest developments in Pakistan. Indeed, Iranian media and some of the country’s political analysts have voiced concern, although the regime has stopped short of embracing their outlook. These concerns center on the following points:
Firstly are concerns related to the Taliban; Iran believes that Khan’s cooperation with China and Iran aborted what it claimed were US plots to turn the Taliban into a threat to Afghanistan’s neighboring countries. Political analysts close to the Iranian regime insist that the US is behind Khan’s ouster, asserting that Sharif has been brought in to implement Washington’s schemes for the region. These analysts suggest that recent attacks on the Iranian Embassy in Kabul and the Iranian Consulate in Herat in protest against the brutal crackdown on Afghan refugees in Iran are actually Washington-sponsored attempts to sow discord between the Iranian and Afghan peoples, especially after the stabbing of three Shiite clerics in Iran — who had worked in Afghanistan — by a young Afghan man whom they allege came to Iran via Pakistani territories. These analysts also insist that the timing of these events coinciding with the new prime minister’s assumption of power means they are not simply arbitrary attacks.
Secondly, Ahmad Nabavi, the former secretary-general of the People’s Solidarity Party — known as Hemmat — has described the Taliban as the gravest potential threat to Iran, claiming that the group might be ready to engage in an alleged Western plot against Iran in return for obtaining recognition. He described what happened in Pakistan as a semi-democratic coup and the new prime minister as a puppet in the hands of Washington.
Thirdly are the concerns about security chaos at the Iran-Pakistan border. A member of the Iranian parliament has expressed his worries about this possibility in light of the assembly’s foreign policy and the national security committee’s previous lauding of Khan’s cooperation with Iran on security issues. He said that the radical groups’ activities had been curbed to a great degree under Khan, with checkpoints being set up in Pakistani border areas, which led to a significant drop in attacks on Iranian outposts and border points. In fact, Iran fears that security coordination with Pakistan will decline with the change of leadership, prompting radical groups to mount attacks on its border outposts.
Tehran fears an advancement of relations between Riyadh and Islamabad under the new prime minister.
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami
And finally, there are concerns about Israel. There is a fear in Iran that the close ties between the new prime minister and the Arabian Gulf states could lead to a rapprochement between Islamabad and Tel Aviv and normalization of relations between the two states, thereby creating a foothold for Tel Aviv in another country neighboring the Middle East. Khan claimed on Nov. 13, 2021 that some countries had been exerting pressure on Pakistan to officially recognize Israel. Tehran also fears an advancement of relations between Riyadh and Islamabad under the new prime minister, after these ties were strained during Khan’s time as prime minister when the two countries had differences on a number of thorny issues.
Iranian media outlets have maintained a diplomatic tone; however, they hailed the comments of the new Pakistani prime minister, in his inaugural speech in parliament, in which he said that Pakistan would work to enhance ties with various countries, including Iran. Sharif also said that the new government supports an expansion of brotherly relations with Iran, including the expansion of commercial cooperation between the two states. Even so, the state-run news agency IRNA hinted at the hope that Khan would win the country’s next election.
On balance, it could be said that despite neighborliness and the several commonalities between Iran and Pakistan, the level of relations between the two countries depends on the orientations of the Pakistani leadership and on Pakistan’s complicated political and economic calculus, which requires it to establish balanced ties with Tehran but take into account the interests of all its regional and international allies.
- Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is president of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami
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