The houbara bustard, an endangered species, is one of Pakistan’s national birds, the Pakistani bald eagle of sorts. The bird’s symbolic status doesn’t matter much, however, to the Gulf Princes who go on annual trips to Pakistan to hunt them to near extinction. Pakistan’s endangered national treasure, not unlike its foreign policy, is apparently up for sale to the Gulf monarchs for the right price.
Pakistan as a state has pretty much been available for rent since 1947, thanks to the conviction of its security establishment that only vast quantities of foreign money can buy an adequate defense against India. But the country’s latest transaction, supporting the Saudi effort to topple Bashar al-Assad in Syria, is potentially much more dangerous than previous instances of the old rental policy.
Until recently, Pakistan was careful to maintain a finely balanced neutrality between the assorted rebel groups and Assad—and by extension, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Then, in February, Pakistan’s national security advisor joined his Saudi counterpart to call for an interim government in Syria, essentially calling for Assad to step down. The statement was a far cry from the mild calls for a general ceasefire that preceded it, but it signaled more than just a rhetorical shift. Pakistan proved instrumental to Saudi foreign policy when it provided mercenaries and ex-military officials to help suppress the uprising in Bahrain. Lately, it has become involved in Saudi Arabia’s proxy war against Iran in Syria. There are unconfirmed reports that the same cadre of mercenaries and ex-army men is training Saudi-backed jihadist groups for deployment in Syria. In fact, GulfNews reported that Pakistan is also ready to sell anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, via Saudi Arabia and Jordan, to various Syrian rebel groups.
Why is Pakistan coming down so heavily on the Saudi side when this opens up big risks in its relations with its large and powerful neighbor, Iran? The answer has much to do with Pakistan’s economic troubles. Unlike many emerging markets, Pakistan’s economy has yet to recover strongly from the recession. It has been posting an average growth rate of 2.9 percent since 2008 amid persistent, sky-high inflation. A terrorist insurgency and the government’s inability to deal with it has also scared off any foreign investors who might have injected money into the ailing economy. An energy crisis has slowed down work in factories and offices, and importing oil has become increasingly expensive. With dwindling reserves of foreign currency, Pakistan has been surviving from one IMF loan to the next, with some additional respite in the form of American reimbursements for money spent on the Afghan war. Pakistan has always been dependent on American aid, whether in the form of development funds or F-16s. Now the American money is dwindling, and Pakistan must look elsewhere for financial support.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, returning from opposition for his third term in office after winning the elections last year, came to power on the promise of solving Pakistan’s electricity and economic troubles. He has an exceptionally close relationship with the Saudis. It was Saudi Arabia that hosted him during his decade-long exile after a coup in 1999. In fact, his Saudi friends practically saved his life; reports were circulating at the time that the Pakistani military would have sentenced Sharif to death had the Saudis not brokered a deal. So, Pakistan is broke and needs electricity, and Nawaz has some really good Saudi friends able to help Pakistan out with both those problems. For Nawaz, this is a no-brainer.
The deal works out for Saudi Arabia too. The Kingdom feels that the United States has been stingy about supporting the Syrian rebel groups, and seems more interested in negotiations than overthrowing Assad. Saudi Arabia’s new approach has been to rally support from other countries to help in its bid to remove Assad and counter Iran, and Pakistan is part of it.
Saudi Arabia is also more threatened by Iran and its nuclear program than the United States is. Iran has increased its influence in Iraq and through Hezbollah in Lebanon, and if Assad stays in power, Iran wins in Syria too. Many in Saudi Arabia and other gulf monarchies are afraid that the so-called Shi‘a crescent—the Iranian sphere of influence—will expand if Assad stays in power, stretching from the Eastern Mediterranean shore to the Persian Gulf. Such fears probably explain why it was so important for Saudi Arabia to put down the predominantly Shi‘a uprising in Bahrain. The presence of a Shi‘a minority inside Saudi Arabia, concentrated in the restive, oil-rich eastern province, also threatens the regime. Of course, the Iranian-Saudi rivalry isn’t just a political one; the “Shi‘a crescent” also highlights the dangerous fault line between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi‘a Iran. Both are theocratic regimes, and their claim to religious orthodoxy is an important part of their domestic legitimacy. Their sectarian differences compel them to view each other as heretical.
Meanwhile, the possibility of a rapprochement between the United States and Iran has made the Saudi leadership feel more isolated and vulnerable. The Saudis fear that the United States is willing to accept Iran’s position as regional leader if Iran remains a threshold state, just below the level of having nuclear weapons. This would be a horrible status quo for the Saudis, because it would mean conceding regional hegemony to Iran.
When it comes to Iran’s nuclear weapons, the Saudis are probably less worried. Saudi Arabia is widely believed to have helped finance Pakistan’s nuclear program, and there are plenty of reports that say Pakistan is ready to ship nukes to Saudi when needed. Generally speaking, Saudi Arabia believes that a Sunni Pakistan hostile to Iran would offset Iran’s large population and powerful military. Pakistan has an insecure military with a fortress mentality, and also is ready to play the anti-Shi‘a card in local politics, making it quite a suitable partner for the Sheikhs.
These geopolitical machinations should, ideally, be none of Pakistan’s concern. Syria is a long way away from Pakistan, and whatever happens there doesn’t really affect it. And as far as the Sunni-Shi‘a fault line is concerned, Pakistan also has a sizable Shi‘a population—around 20 percent of the country and second only to Iran’s—so it ought not to bend this way or that. This isn’t just a moral argument. As sectarian violence in Pakistan rises, many analysts in both Pakistan and Washington think that Sunni-Shi‘a violence poses a greater threat than the Taliban, and that it will inevitably intensify now that the state has picked a side.
Like any two neighbors, Iran and Pakistan have interests that align and diverge. They align in the region of Balochistan, which is contiguous to both of them. A nationalist insurgency there threatens both states, and there is room for cooperation to deal with it. There’s also a cultural and religious affinity. Thousands of Shi‘a pilgrims make the journey to Iran every year to visit Shi‘ism’s holy shrines, and Urdu, Pakistan’s national language, borrows heavily from Persian. In fact, Persian was the court language during the Mughal era, and is held in high esteem in Pakistani literary circles.
Pakistan had also been working with Iran to solve its energy crisis. The two countries had agreed to construct a pipeline that would transport Iranian natural gas directly to Pakistan. It was a mutually beneficial deal. In the face of growing sanctions, Iran found an outlet to export gas to, and Pakistan found a cheap, plentiful supply of gas. Counter-intuitively, the deal looked more promising when the U.S. opposed it. Before the interim deal that froze the Iranian nuclear program in exchange for a let-up on sanctions, Iran was desperate to sell its gas. Pakistan’s ties with the United States were also at rock-bottom, and it was more than willing to defy America if it meant mitigating its energy crisis.
Since the improvement in U.S.-Iran relations reduced sanctions pressure, however, Iran is less eager to sell gas to Pakistan, and Pakistan is less able to afford the pipeline. Iran cancelled a $500 million loan to Pakistan to construct its side of the pipeline, ensuring that Pakistan would fall back on its part of the deal. Concurrently, India emerged as a willing buyer of Iranian gas, and there’s already talk of bypassing Pakistan by building an underwater pipeline directly to India. India has a bigger appetite—and wallet—for Iranian gas. It has also been investing in the Iranian port of Chabahar so that its goods can bypass Pakistan to access Afghanistan and Central Asia. Pakistan’s disgruntlement with Iran, then, doesn’t come as surprise, since Iran chose India over Pakistan as a viable trading partner.
Pakistan and Iran also have divergent interests regarding who will control Afghanistan after American troops leave. Pakistan continues to support the Pushtun, Sunni Afghan Taliban, while Iran backs the Shi‘a, Persian-speaking sections. If a conflict between them escalates, as many predict, after the withdrawal, then relations between Pakistan and Iran may get worse. Neither Pakistan nor Iran should want that, whatever their interests in Afghanistan.
Recently, a series of events, culminating in reported cross-border shelling, has endangered not just the pipeline, but the Pakistan-Iranian relationship itself. After five Iranian border troops were kidnapped by a militant group and allegedly taken to Pakistan, the Iranian foreign office said that it would venture into Pakistani territory to retrieve the troops if they have to. Anti-Shi‘a groups started demonstrating outside the Iranian consulate in Karachi against “Iranian-sponsored terrorism.” Then, there was an attempted suicide attack outside the Iranian consulate in Peshawar, which killed three guards. On Wednesday, February 26th shelling took place. As border tensions escalate, one can only see further militarization and a shift from friendship to hostility.
By exchanging the pipeline for subsidized Gulf gas, Pakistan may think it has made a reasonable decision, but it is already paying the price for getting entangled in a struggle it ought to have kept clear of, and may have to pay even more in the future. Pakistan is further alienating its Shi‘a population, which is already being persecuted by sectarian groups. In recent years, attacks against Shi‘as have dramatically increased, including the horrific bombings in Quetta last year that killed 200 people altogether. Anti-Shi‘a groups like Lashkar-i-Jhangvi and Sipah-i-Sahaba have grown in both numbers and popularity.
Saudi Arabia has been funneling large sums of money into Pakistan since the 1970s to promote its puritanical, anti-Shi‘a strand of Wahhabi Islam, and is partially to blame for the rise in sectarian tension, if not outright attacks. With Pakistan’s further commitment of Saudi petrodollars, and by extension, its ideology, Pakistani Shi‘as are right to worry about their future. In fact, most Pakistanis should worry. Pakistani Shi‘as live all over the country, and are well-integrated in cities and villages. If conflict escalates, the fighting will take place on the streets of Karachi, Lahore, Quetta, and the plains of Punjab.
A wider Sunni-Shi‘a conflict within Pakistan is more dangerous to national security than an Afghanistan under Iranian influence. In fact, one can see this conflict spilling over already. Throughout this year and the last, there have been many tit-for-tat murders of Sunni and Shi‘a clerics. The riots that took place during the holy days of Ashura, sacred particularly for Shi‘as, are glimpse of how bad things could get in the future. Radicals on both sides continue to draw further appeal, as evidenced by the rise of the anti-Shi‘a Sipah-i-Sahaba and the anti-Sunni Tehrik-i-Jafaria. A radicalized Shi‘a population will then inevitably look to Iran for support.
Finally, Pakistan simply cannot afford to have a hostile Iran on its western frontier. Amid a heavy deployment of troops and artillery in the east (India), north (Kashmir) and northwest (Afghanistan), the Pakistani military would have to be even further stretched. Even on its bloated budget, the military cannot effectively maintain and secure its borders against hostile countries and terrorist groups in the northwest, especially when the border is as forbidding, porous and long as the Pakistan-Iran frontier. The Frontier Corps, the law enforcement agency designated to protect the Pakistan-Iran border, is comparatively ill-equipped and poorly trained compared to Pakistan’s other paramilitary organizations. Also, because of the insurgency in Balochistan, they have been mostly tasked with keeping the peace within the province rather than with manning the border. They are hardly in any position to counter Iran.
So while various geopolitical shifts have made Pakistan-Iranian ties weaker, particularly regarding energy and Afghanistan, many factors should have compelled Pakistan to maintain its neutrality over Syria. It risks a serious escalation of sectarian conflict within the country, and risks starting its own proxy war with Iran in Afghanistan, which, unlike the Saudis, it cannot bankroll.
Ultimately, Pakistan is giving too much, and getting too little in return. If it is only cheap power and aid that it wants, there are other ways to get them. The United States promised to develop all sources of domestic energy in Pakistan to keep it from building the pipeline with Iran; Pakistan’s distrust of the United States stopped that from happening. With a thaw in relations between Sharif and the Obama Administration, these options should be explored again. Pakistan also has vast coal reserves that it has yet to exploit, and Sharif should court investors to develop them. To his credit, Sharif has diversified his quest for energy. Pakistan is importing subsidized natural gas from Qatar, and is working with the Chinese to develop more nuclear power plants. Given this diversification, he should know that Saudi Arabia’s energy offer cannot be the be all, end all of Pakistan’s energy policy. It may sound appealing, but it will cost Pakistan its ties with Iran—ties it cannot afford to lose.
Pakistan, broke and desperate, doesn’t have a strong hand to play. Pakistani foreign policy may have doomed the houbara bustard, but it isn’t too late to salvage its national security or the security of the wider region.