Whilst expressing grave concern over the ongoing animosity between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Prime Minister Imran Khan warned that if there were any conflict it would be devastating for the developing world as the oil prices will go through the roof. At his press conference at the UN, the PM said that on his way to UNGA, he stopped over in Saudi Arabia and met Prince Mohammad Bin Salman. He revealed that the Prince asked him to speak to Iran for possible de-escalation and President Trump also asked him to help reduce tension with Iran.
Based on Imran Khan’s press conference, it seems like both Prince Mohammad Bin Salman and President Trump have mandated him to play a certain role in reducing the current level of tension between Tehran and Riyadh, on one hand, and the US-Iran, on the other.
It is no less a feat for Pakistan that it has been trusted to help mediate between the two friendly countries. For this the credit goes to Imran Khan who succeeded to convince Mohammad Bin Salman to trust his pacifist instincts.
The PM has very much understood the probable consequences for Pakistan if Iran and Saudi Arabia go to war and here is why: the current proxy warfare and “grey conflict” between Tehran and Riyadh potentially progressing into full scale hostilities will likely force Pakistan to choose sides making an immediate foreign policy imperative for Islamabad to help prevent potential conflict between the countries.
Pakistan being a strategic partner and pencilling the territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia has to be directly involved in shoring up defences of Saudi Arabia in some form and shape hence by default taking side and throwing away its notional neutrally against Iran—Tehran thus far understands Pakistan’s leverage with Saudi Arabia as not something against Iran so its’ establishment believes into strategic neutrality of Islamabad.
However, since Pakistan has to be credible security guarantor of the KSA at times when the US has walked back on is iron-clad security umbrella promised not only to the KSA, but also to Japan, Philippines and even South Korea, and its waning interest in ME after Shale’s discovery, Islamabad can not abandon Riyadh and has to make good on its commitment to the territorial integrity of the KSA in case of a conflict.
In other words, dilemma Pakistan facing is: it can not over promise and show little support on the ground (i.e., since Islamabad can not back out of its security and strategic partnership with the KSA) it may even require to cooperate; for example, in intel sharing and (God forbid, provision of use of its air space for any possible attack on Iran— remember, any attack will most likely be involving missile use and aerial bombardment—Islamabad may be viewed as undermining Iranian interests in such a scenario. Thus, It is going to be very hard for Pakistan to convince Iran of its neutrality any longer and Tehran may be less convinced: If Pakistan somehow crosses what Iran believes it’s “red line”, Tehran may even angrily react and focus on Pakistan as subject of its sophisticated “grey warfare”, proxy backlash undermining its national security. We may see a repeat of 2008 and what went before, (e.g, in the 1980s).
Saudi-Iran flare up will divert world’s focus from IOK as Pakistan is frantically mounting diplomatic surge to secure geo-politically over-occupied world’s attention span and spotlight.
Economic cost: the attack on Saudi oil facility has already led to a reduction of 6% percent of oil supply from the KSA sending prices of oil sky high around the world by nearly 20%. Pakistan has to adjust the spike in the international market at its petrol pumps further increasing the prospect of inflation for consumers.
Now imagine the economic consequences for Islamabad, if the KSA and Iran are embroiled in a full scale war after the KSA musters a coalition of the willing to go on punishing Iran—
since almost 60 percent of world oil crosses through Strait of Hormuz, oil supply will be interrupted making the prices out of control.
As Saudis anticipate Iran may strike back and with even increasing force, potentially sucking in the US and possibly Israel, the next level of hostilities will make their soil as battle ground—the last thing, the KSA wants, so here comes the role of Pakistan to help pull the situation from the brink.
Since, Riyadh enjoys unlimited leverage with Pakistan and since Islamabad has deep influence with the KSA (e.g, strategic partnership, PM Imran Khan’s affinity with Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, people-to-people contacts, Gen Raheel Sharif as Commander of IMCTC), Saudi Arabia will listen to Pakistan for any deescalation proposal and creating an environment through immediate CBMs.
How far Pakistan has a leverage on Iran to execute Islamabad’’s pioneering steps for potential mediating role?
There is no way to find out what Tehran is actually thinking about this offer but quick SWOT analysis of Iran’s foreign and strategic policies give us a glimpse of how far it will take Pakistan’s role in de-escalation seriously:
1) Tehran would want to know if something is offered by the US and what, before any mediation is considered, let alone any concession is offered;
2) Iran under crippling crisis seeks to create maximum “scare effect”—threatening the US by undermining its allies in the Middle East, particularly, Saudi Arabia, raising the specter of oil prices for consumers like China and India and the rest of Asia to provoke their diplomatic intervention. This strategy is choreographed in a way not to cross the “red lines” of both the US and the KSA: on Saudi oil facility attack, Tehran allowed room for plausible deniability, for example;
3) The US “maximum pressure” strategy seems failing if the objective was to bring Iran to its knees;
4) Short of large scale war, nothing forced Tehran to relent knowing it well the US will unlikely to go to war when President Trump is about to enter into his election campaign.
5) Unless US offers something on sanctions or returns to JCPOA, Tehran will walk away from any deal given the negotiating leverage of Iran has increased manifold.
6) Iran realises the big picture vulnerability of the KSA: the Saudis can no longer trust the promises of the US—both oral and written agreements—of providing security umbrella as the US’s Middle Eastern calculus changing towards Washington’s long term dwindling interests after Shale’s discovery; equally, it (KSA) does not want to shut down its facilities, or part of it, for the second time to shatter the steady oil supply, undermine the critical strategic asset—Aramco’s perceived trillion plus dollar worth, an instrument of Mohammad Bin Salamn’s vision to ensure the transition from carbon economy to a business and tourism hub in the next two decades;
7) Imran Khan’s offer would likely be construed in Tehran as an outcome of pressure Iran exerted on the KSA through its “grey warfare”.
8) Pakistan’s leverage on Iran is limited as fundamentally Islamabad-Tehran relations are not structurally underpinned by economic bond, pull of military hardware and international diplomatic clout. Only proximity factor makes Iran strategically put itself in high order foreign policy priority list of Islamabad, notwithstanding divergence on Chahabhar, Afghanistan and limited border incursions and grey-warfare.
Yet Iran understands the extent of Pakistan’s influence on Saudi Arabia and will try to use this opportunity by Pakistan to its advantage at least for optics.
Let us be clear no grand bargain should be expected at this stage.
But Pakistan can do the following to expand on its diplomatic footprint in West Asia.
1) It should make overt and covert diplomatic efforts to ease the tension;
2) World attention to ME crisis will divert spotlight from human rights abuses taking India off the hook, so it should work to broaden its diplomatic options creatively: for example, Islamabad can influence Iran through Chinese leverage—China has entered in West Asia as very important stakeholder with the impending US troops’ drawdown from Afghanistan and a new 25 years strategic agreement with Tehran, it does not want any conflict to impede expansion of BRI.
3) Pakistan can join forces with China and Russia in preventing the eruption of largescale war.
4) The KSA’s geo-economic pivot to Asia, its burgeoning energy relations with China, the lure of rising prosperous middle classes in the region, and Riyadh’s domestic transition from carbon-economy to a non-carbon economy also make it a stronger national imperative for Prince Mohammad Bin Salman to prevent Saudi Arabia sleepwalking into another destabilising Middle Eastern conflict so making the job of Imran Khan easier to convince Tehran climbing down the escalation ladder is worth trying.
In a nutshell, Pakistan has larger stake in preventing any conflict between the KSA and Iran. PM Imran Khan has successfully leveraged his leadership, charisma and personal chemistry with Mohammad Bin Salamn and President Trump proving Pakistan can be a force multiplier in stabilising West Asia and the Middle East, the world cannot ignore.
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