Imran Khan is back in Islamabad after his Gulf peace mission, after visiting Tehran and Riyadh, trying to extinguish regional fires, while the real fires raged at home. While he was away, shrewd politico Maulana Fazal Rehman of Jamiat Ulma-e- Islam prevailed upon PML-N and PPP to support him in his bid to launch a mass agitation to remove the military-backed Imran administration.
Initially Imran Khan ignored and mocked the cleric who did not recognise the controversial elections of July 2018.
Instead, Imran banked on the divide and rule, and carrot and stick policy of the administration, keeping PPP and PML-N, two mainstream political parties, paralysed.
As we speak, the opposition parties seem poised to launch the agitation of a long march towards Islamabad by the end of the month. After wasting much time, the Imran administration is making haphazard and contradictory efforts to ward off the looming agitation that has the potential to throw the country into a state of anarchy. This is happening while the country has barely eked out of the blacklist by the FATF as the Sword of Damocles still hangs over, with the February deadline ticking.
Possible Motives of Imran Khan’s Gulf Expedition
Foreign policy pundits however are still wondering about the motives of the Imran Khan Gulf expedition last week. Mr Khan landed in Tehran on 13 October to “facilitate” the crisis between Iran and Saudi Arabia. On 15 October, he travelled to Riyadh to continue his shuttle diplomacy.
If you go through the bland Saudi statements and media interactions by Pakistani and Iranian leaders, the way forward came out of the diplomatic effort, except the fluffy rhetoric by foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi.
Imran Khan first talked about mediation between the US and Iran during his UNGA trip in New York in September, when he told the press that he had been asked by President Trump to mediate between the US and Iran. Trump was quick to denounce it by saying that it was Imran Khan’s idea and he only asked him to go ahead if he wanted to. There were reports claiming that Imran Khan was asked by Mohammad Bin Salman to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Later, both Saudis and Pakistan’s foreign office denied the reports of Pakistan’s mediation.
‘Imran Admin Symbolises Divisiveness at Home’
There is no doubt that if Iran and the Saudi Arabia go to war, Pakistan will be negatively affected in more than one way. Pakistan shares around a 900 km border with Iran, and will be affected by the war next door. Pakistan is still reeling from the Afghan war fought on its western border since the Soviet invasion in 1980, and the war on terror since 9/11. Pakistan will also be affected by the sectarian war if the war erupts between Iran and Saudi Arabia; it might foment sectarian strife in the country.
Besides economic cost of the devastation, if the energy resources of both Iran and Saudi Arabia were depleted due to the war, the entire world would suffer.
‘Pakistan Under Imran Can’t Play Peacemaker’
Former Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar agrees: “There’s no doubt that any conflict in the region would have far-reaching negative ramifications for Pakistan and the region, so Pakistan must do whatever it can to try and de-escalate the situation. Pakistan has a deep abiding interest in ensuring that the schisms that are dividing the Muslim world are filled with trust, to enable a joint effort to address the many challenges the Muslim population is facing in Kashmir, Palestine, Myanmar, etc.”
But she also says that currently, Pakistan under Imran Khan, can’t play the role of the peacemaker in the region.
“I think we need to understand that for any country or a leader to be an effective interlocutor, internal political stability and economic sovereignty are basic pre-requisites. The prime minister’s ability to mediate an age-old and complex set of conflicts between Iran and Saudi Arabia becomes limited when he is seen as a person who does not have the ability to put his own house in order. The world would still listen to us, but won’t take us as a serious player in the regional conflict management. The Imran administration symbolises divisiveness at home and can’t project the very opposite of that in the region,” she says.
Will Pak’s Dependence on Saudi, US Ruin Its Chance to be ‘Neutral’ Arbiter?
Pakistan’s leverage with Iran is almost non-existent. Pakistan’s trade with Iran is just a few hundred million dollars, and the bilateral and multilateral relationship is frozen in time and has been adversely affected by Pakistan’s dependence on Saudi Arabia and the US who have tried to hurt Iran. Pakistan’s dependence on Saudi Arabia and the US also makes it less likely to be accepted as a neutral arbiter.
On the flip side, Pakistan’s 2.5 million workers who send around 5 billion dollars worth remittances and kingdom’s perennial dole outs to Pakistan, including recent USD 3 billion parked in the central bank, and USD 3 billion annual oil on deferred payments, scuttles Pakistan’s position as an honest broker and mediator. Pakistan’s former Army Chief General Raheel Sharif, leading an anti-Iran NATO in Saudi Arabia, weakens Pakistan’s facilitator role further.
Jaleel Abbas Jilani, Pakistan’s former foreign secretary and the Senior Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) however, sees a window of opportunity.
“There appears a realisation in both Saudi Arabia and Iran, that continued tension between the two would exacerbate their vulnerabilities. Signals emanating from Riyadh and Tehran reflect a positive trend towards managing their relations, if not an outright rapprochement. Pakistan being close to both these countries can play a formidable role of a facilitator. The two countries appear to have accepted such a role,” he says.
Imran Khan’s Gulf Trip: The ‘Feel-Good’ Factor
Imtiaz Alam, senior journalist and the Secretary General of South Asia Free Media Association disagrees: “Faced with his embarrassing diplomatic isolation over Kashmir and rising opposition over his failure to deliver on his grand promises, Prime Minister Imran Khan undertook this ‘facilitating’ exercise for a thaw between the Saudis and the Iranians, without any leverage whatsoever. Perhaps, instead of obliging Khan on his request to mediate between India and Pakistan, Trump seemed to have kidded him to help resolve US-Iran conflict, and Khan was naive enough to take it seriously.”
Most analysts in Pakistan agree that the expedition was made to create a feel-good factor for the administration, when no positive story about the administration was coming through and won’t help it much.
Even the visit of the royal couple was overshadowed by the new FATF warning of potential blacklisting in February and fresh curbs on media including deporting of CPJ Asia Coordinator. The real test of the stability is round the corner, when opposition parties come knocking at the federal capital next week.
(Murtaza Solangi is a broadcast journalist based in Islamabad, and is a former Director General of Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation. He tweets @murtazasolangi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)