Caught in the Wrong Neighbourhood: Pakistan in the US-Iran Confrontation

Pakistan, by way of its location, has found itself involved in major conflicts more than once. Starting from its role as an American satellite to counter Soviet influence to then participating in the US war on terror, the country has enjoyed an outsized role in the regional geopolitics. But that has come at a huge cost: the economy has suffered immensely and thousands of citizens have lost their lives while the international reputation has been dealt blow after blow due to Islamabad’s association with terrorism. 

So when the news of Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani’s assassination by the United States came in, it immediately sent Pakistan into panic, be it those in power or the average citizen who barely knew anything about the regional geopolitics. 

On the same day as the US conducted those strikes, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted about his calls with regional leaders including Mohammed Bin Salman, Ashraf Ghani and Pakistan’s Army Chief – not the prime minister – General Qamar Bajwa. It read: “#Pakistan‘s Chief of Staff General Bajwa and I spoke today about U.S. defensive action to kill Qassem Soleimani. The #Iran regime’s actions in the region are destabilizing and our resolve in protecting American interests, personnel, facilities, and partners will not waver.”

The domestic challenge to set a foreign policy on Iran

This raised fears that Islamabad would yet again get itself entangled as a mercenary in another war, as the military establishment profits off it. However, the army’s public relations wing soon gave out a statement, calling for “maximum restraint and constructive engagement by all concerned to de-escalate the situation in broader interest of peace and stability.”

The possibility of getting sandwiched between a global and regional power in a potential war next door rang alarm bells, bringing flashbacks of how that policy has historically backfired. What made matters even more complicated was that the slain general enjoyed great popularity amongst Pakistan’s Shiite community, which makes up around 20% of the total population and is the second-largest in the world after Iran. 

Like their fellow brethren across the Middle East, Pakistani Shiites were devastated by the “martyrdom” of Soleimani and took processions to mourn his killing and condemn the US. The late IRGC commander was crucial in garnering support for Iran among the Shiite minorities of Sunni majority countries and while influence in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria is well-known, he was no less popular in Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

The gravitational pull Iran has for Afghan and Pakistani Shiites has to be seen from three angles; firstly, they enjoy close cultural ties thanks to historic Persian influence; second, the presence of holy sites and centres of religious learning, especially in the city of Qom, has naturally made the Islamic republic a spiritual leader, aided by the presence of an Ayatollah; and lastly, the minority Shiites have increasingly come under attack by extremist Sunni factions such as the Taliban, and Tehran’s anti-Salafi ideology makes it a natural ally and defender. 

Tehran, for its part, has been extremely smart to leverage that, creating militias exclusively of foreign fighters and offering them monetary benefits and sometimes the promise of Iranian citizenship as well. Two such brigades are Liwa Fatemiyoun and Liwa Zainebiyoun, whose official purposes are to defend the mosque of Sayyida Zainab. The former comprises of Afghans, mostly those living in Iran or from the persecuted Hazara community while the latter mostly draws Pakistani students in Qom and other cities or the residents of Parachinar in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, who have specifically targeted by the Taliban. These forces are trained in combat and then sent to Syria, often to fight on the frontlines, as evidenced by the extremely high casualty rate of Afghans. But beyond these pockets too, 

Given the popularity of Iranian administration among Pakistani Shiites as well as learning the costs of fighting someone else’s war the hard way, Islamabad has justifiably shown its dislike for any escalation which could draw it in any further complications. Khan, who is a long-time critic of both Soviet and the US wars in Afghanistan and has repeatedly shown his lofty ambitions of service as a possible deal broker between Tehran and Riyadh, directed his foreign minister to embark on a tour of both the regional countries plus the US to help diffuse tensions. 

“I have asked FM Qureshi to visit Iran, KSA & USA to meet with respective foreign ministers, Secretary of State; & COAS Gen Bajwa to contact relevant military leaders to convey a clear message: Pakistan is ready to play its role for peace but it can never again be part of any war,” he tweeted on Jan 8. 

Stressing the message of peace and neutrality

Beginning with the Islamic Republic, Qureshi arrived in Mashhad, the second-most populous city in the country, on Jan 12 and paid his respects at the shrine of Imam Reza, one of the holiest sites especially for Shiite Muslims. He also called upon President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in separate meetings and reiterated that “Pakistan would not allow its territory to be used against anyone; nor would Pakistan be a part of any war or conflict in the region.”

The next stop was Saudi Arabia where the Pakistani foreign minister met his Saudi counterpart and stressed Islamabad’s role as a “partner for peace” that would support all efforts for constructive engagement. 

Finally, in the US, Qureshi met key leaders including Pompeo, Under Secretary of Defense John Rood, Congress’s Pakistan Caucus and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Just a couple of days later, American diplomat Alice Wells touched down upon Islamabad for an official visit to discuss bilateral and regional issues.  

The two sides have had a few other calls since then and the foreign minister has strongly iterated that the country and the region cannot afford another war, while saying that Islamabad will make its efforts to diffuse the situation. 

Since the past one year or so, there seems to have been a rapprochement between Washington and Islamabad, beginning from Trump’s meeting with Khan and last month, the revival of International Military Education and Training programs for Pakistan army. On the issue of Afghan peace process too, the two countries look to be on the same page, or at least the antagonism of the past decade has subsided. 

Will history repeat itself or is it a new dawn?

The question, then, is if there’s a possibility of Islamabad joining the Washington camp against its neighbour. Would the promise of a close partnership with the US and the monetary and defence-related benefits that come with it would be enough to woo the powerful Pakistan army? Or after years of taking explicitly partisan sides, Imran Khan will finally steer his country towards the path of neutrality? In the past he has been largely able to set the narrative for foreign policy so if that is to serve any indicator, it might just be the beginning of a new era.