Friday, October 30, 2015

Daily Times Editorial Oct 31, 2015

Balancing act The Iranian National Security Adviser Ali Shamkhani’s visit to Pakistan and his interaction with the top leadership have encouraged hopes of cooperation between the two brotherly neighbouring countries as well as raised concerns about Pakistan’s regional foreign policy. In a meeting with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Mr Shamkhani did not mince his words in describing Saudi Arabia’s policy as one of stoking instability and insecurity in the region while that of the west as seeking ‘managed exploitation’ of terrorism to advance its agenda and interfere in the internal affairs of sovereign states. He praised the decision of Pakistan to stay out of Saudi Arabia’s military aggression against its impoverished neighbour Yemen. On the other hand he described Iran and Pakistan as two influential countries in the region and the Muslim world whose friendly and constructive relations have never been affected by change of governments. The fight against terrorism, he went on, was one of the pressing issues for both Tehran and Islamabad. Shamkhani also discussed the stalled peace talks in Afghanistan, border security between the two neighbours and economic development and cooperation. In the latter context he referred to the July agreement signed between Iran and the P5+1 on Tehran’s nuclear programme, the consequent potential removal of sanctions on Iran and the concomitant opening up of economic and other opportunities for cooperation between the two countries. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in turn appreciated Iran’s active and constructive role in regional matters, especially in the campaign against terrorism. Terrorism, the prime minister underlined, has turned into a global threat and his government remains committed to the battle against the scourge. He emphasised that Chabahar and Gwadar, far from being in competition as some hostile sources try to project, would be ‘sister ports’ and complement each other. Iran’s rehabilitation in the eyes of the powers that be following the agreement on its nuclear programme offers real and tangible advantages for completing the stalled Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, which would help us overcome our energy crisis, and enhance overland trade across the common border. For the latter, road and even rail enhancement would be to mutual benefit. Iran has just scored another diplomatic victory by being invited by the US to join the multilateral discussions on the Syrian crisis, given that it is on the ground in the conflict on the side of Bashar al-Assad and therefore an important if not critical partner in the search for a political solution to that bloody war. In its stance in Syria, Iran is aligned with Russia in support of the al-Assad government. The US’s conceding to the need for Iranian participation in the Syrian dialogue has not gone down well with Saudi Arabia, which has only truculently and reluctantly accepted the necessity of including Iran in the endeavour. Iran’s growing stature globally should be taken note of by Pakistan and employed to its own benefit. However, Islamabad has to conduct a careful balancing act between the conflicting interests of Saudi Arabia and Iran and not get squeezed in the middle or give in to demands not in its own best interests, as it demonstrated in the Yemen case despite the obvious fallout of anger on the part of Riyadh and its ally the UAE. Pakistan cannot allow itself to be taken for granted by any country, no matter how friendly or generous, and should keep its own national interests above all else. Sometimes that ‘neutral’ stance will inevitably bring it into conflict with either of the two sides embroiled in a war of influence in the region, i.e. Saudi Arabia and Iran, a struggle some have likened to a war for the soul of the Muslim world. Difficult as it is, Islamabad should remain on good terms with both sides in this conflict, even if it means sometimes annoying one or the other side because of rejecting unacceptable demands on it, such as was implied in asking for the Pakistan army to act as a mercenary force in Yemen. Such adventures have never, and will never pay off and have the potential to damage Pakistan’s interests in unforeseeable ways. Pakistan needs such problems to add to its existing stock like it needs a hole in the head.

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