In the Middle East, a tragic picture is emerging. Iraq, Syria, Libya and now Yemen are being torn apart by geo-sectarian and ethnic conflicts. Bahrain, too, is on the edge and is keeping the lid on internal sectarian rivalry by repressive measures. Regional rivals, Saudi Arabia and Iran, through their proxy wars, are adding fuel to the fire. What they fail to see is that this is acting as a catalyst for the Islamic State (IS) and other militant groups to expand their power bases.
The Arab Spring has turned into an ‘Arab Autumn’. The only exception in the Arab world is Tunisia where the Arab Spring has proved a great success and democracy is taking roots with a progressive and modern outlook. In contrast, in Egypt, where the influence of the military runs deep, General Sisi, after ousting the elected president Mohamed Morsi in 2014, has reverted to authoritarian rule. Autocratic meltdown is evident in Libya and countries of the Middle East are at different stages of transition. Yemen, as noted earlier, has collapsed and Syria is halfway there with large ungoverned spaces struggling hard to avert total breakdown despite avid support from Iran and Russia. Saudi Arabia, the icon of the Arab world, is engaged in a three-front battle. It is fighting the IS and al Qaeda, running a proxy war against Iran by supporting groups that are fighting Bashar al-Assad in Syria, the regime in Iraq and the Houthi tribesman of Yemen. It faces occasional resistance from its Shia community in the eastern part of the country. Some frustrated segments of Saudi youth are reported to have joined the IS. There is also pressure on the monarchy for reform and easing of restrictions on women and on freedom of speech. With oil prices falling and the US now able to export oil instead of being dependent on imports, the importance of oil-producing Gulf countries has diminished.
To add to Saudi woes, Washington looks close to wrapping up a nuclear deal with Tehran. With the experience of hindsight, Riyadh is justified in seeking ironclad guarantees because Iran has in the past secretely engaged in a nuclear enrichment programme. No wonder then that in recent years, Riyadh has made moves to start its own civilian nuclear programme with the help of French companies in the framework of the NPT. Saudi Arabia is taking a hard position as it fears that even the acquisition of civil nuclear technology by Iran could tilt the strategic balance in the latter’s favour. But with Iran’s economy in distress — due to sanctions and low oil prices — it seems agreeable to cut back significantly on the centrifuges.
Israel, which itself is an opaque nuclear power, hypocritically remains the most vehement critic of any deal that allows Iran to retain nuclear infrastructure or a capability for indigenous uranium enrichment. Israel also enjoys the full backing of the Republicans in the US in its opposition to the Iranian nuclear programme. This was evident from the ecstatic reception accorded to Benjamin Netanyahu during his recent emotional address to Congress.
From the Iranian leadership’s perspective, this is a strategic moment as it has significantly advanced its influence in several regional countries. In Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen, power is now in the hands of those parties or groups that are close to Iran. Moreover, in Lebanon, the pro-Iran Hezbollah’s influence has been increasing and Hamas in Gaza enjoys a cosy relationship with Tehran. Iran has also significantly increased its influence in Afghanistan.
The Saudis are worried that once the nuclear deal materialises, the US will lean towards Tehran because it has more in common with it and that will further alter the strategic balance in Iran’s favour. Secretary John Kerry, during his recent visit to Riyadh, tried to allay these concerns but doubts remain. However, the Saudis are taking no chances and are building an alliance to countervail Iran. A stream of recent visitors to Riyadh that includes the presidents of Egypt and Turkey, and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is a manifestation of this policy in which support of these countries is being vigorously sought.
The Saudis and Iranians realise that with increased oil production in the US and growing alternative sources of energy, oil is no longer a key strategic determinant. What really matters is the internal strength of these countries that is dependent on domestic cohesion, the level of democratisation, and institutional and economic development. Although neither of these two countries can claim to be democratic, Iran clearly is more homogeneous, has an educated elite and is less dependent on foreign support.
Pakistan’s vital national interests require extremely deft handling of its relations with both these countries. Iran is a key neighbour with whom we have strong cultural and religious ties and share a long border in the restive province of Balochistan. Pakistan has a large Shia population, estimates range between 15 to 20 per cent, which has a close affinity with Iran. We also have to be mindful of close relations of Iran with Afghanistan, India and Russia. An antagonistic relationship with Tehran will add a new and dangerous element in our fight for internal stability and peace that could lead to increased turbulence in Balochistan and other parts of Pakistan.
For us, Saudi Arabia is a strategic partner and an indispensable ally. Being custodians of Makkah and Medina, they enjoy a special place in the hearts of our people. Of course, we have to fully support Saudi Arabia in its fight against the IS and al Qaeda. But we should avoid getting caught in a nutcracker by taking sides. No country has suffered as much as Pakistan by joining regional and global alliances. It is clearly in our best interest to balance the relationship with Iran and Saudi Arabia and endeavour to play a conciliatory role by bringing the adversaries to work for the common good of their people and the region. By taking sides, we will further sharpen the divide in the Middle East and the raging flames will engulf Pakistan in a much bigger way than we have ever experienced in the past.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 11th, 2015.