By Naila Mahsud
October 3, 2019
Already strained relations between the US and Iran have worsened further since US President Donald Trump, withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal, making the latter a hardliner state reducing its commitment to international standards of uranium enrichment.
In the international community, Iran is being seen as a tricky state. It has strategically flexed its muscles enough that it can’t be curtailed with mere sanctions. It has the capacity to sustain pressure from the outside world and its anti-American sentiment gives it leverage to carry out its proxy games in the strategically important states of the region.
During his visit last week to the US, Prime Minister Imran Khan said the US had mandated Pakistan to mediate between the US and Iran. This comes at a time when Islamabad has newly gained better relations with the Trump administration, and at the same time has a cautious relationship with Iran.
Tehran has been imposing pre-conditions for any talks with the US. It wants the US to return to and abide by the nuclear treaty. In this context, Pakistan lacks strategic weight. It does not enjoy leverage to be in a position to find common ground between the US and Iran to start direct or indirect talks.
The recent attack by the Iran-aligned Houthis on the oil refinery in Saudi Arabia has set off alarms in the Middle East and the world in general; it has caused panic in the international community and unleashed their worst fears of the potential spillover of any military conflict in the region on security at large, and on the world’s energy supplies.
Most recently, both Pakistan and India voted against UN proposals to investigate human rights violations in Yemen. Iran, the major supporter of the Houthi rebels in Yemen, is not going to welcome this step by Pakistan, and it could prove to be another major bone of contention between the two countries. Because, despite the fact that Pakistan has so far been largely neutral regarding Middle-East disputes, economically, Saudi Arabia is becoming increasingly important to Islamabad.
Riyadh injected $6 billion into Pakistan’s investment-hungry economy this year, and Prime Minister Khan, since coming to power, was able to establish close and cordial relations with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
While Pakistan did manage to so far stay out of the Middle East’s strife with Iran, it has participated in the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition, which is led by General Raheel Sharif, Pakistan’s former army chief.
Moreover, Pakistan has backed out of the gas pipeline deal with Iran mainly due to the threat of US sanctions.
The country could face a hefty penalty as it promised to complete its part of the project in its bilateral agreement with Iran. Under a penalty clause, it is bound to pay $1 million per day to Iran from Jan. 1, 2015 onwards for failing to build its part of the pipeline. The US has always voiced the biggest opposition to the pipeline deal, fearing that by fulfilling the major energy needs of the South-Asian region, Iran could sideline US strategic interests there.
The ongoing issue in Afghanistan and both the states’ policies being in radical opposition in that country, could also cause a major trust deficit between Pakistan and Iran. On the sidelines of the UNGA, Khan stated, ‘We are trying now to get the talks restarted between Taliban and the Americans, and hopefully the deal will be signed.’
Iran has a love-hate relationship with the Taliban in Afghanistan, but is unlikely to appreciate face-saving for the US in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s proposal to mediate between the Taliban and the US could also be taken as a major dent in Iran’s strategic policies of its proxy games.
Apart from the rhetoric enthusiasm and goodwill intention on the part of Pakistan, Iran will not see Pakistan in the role of a neutral mediator, and neither does Iran believe that Pakistan has a strategically significant position with the US to play this role.
Instead, the US will look for more effective options like France and Germany, with Pakistan, at best, playing the role of a conveyer, but definitely not a mediator.