Pakistan’s historic ties with neighboring Iran prevent Islamabad from adopting neutrality in the Saudi-Iran feud
Pakistan downed an Iranian drone on June 21 in Balochistan’s Panjgur area along the Pakistan-Iran border. Those who were confident that Pakistan would not step into the new Iran-Saudi war must have been shocked. The drone could be “accidental”; but Pakistan didn’t wait to confirm, which points to ongoing bilateral tension. Earlier, it was clear enough that Iran was miffed by Pakistan’s ex-Army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif taking command of a 41-nation Saudi-led military coalition. It had seen that Pakistan’s parliamentary resolution advising neutrality in the Yemen crisis between Iran and Saudi Arabia had fallen on deaf ears.
Adviser to the Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz has told the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs that General Sharif had taken command of the military coalition “in his personal capacity” and was not sent by the government and thus “could not be called back.” But the truth may lie in the recent history of alliances in the region where Iran and Pakistan were clearly at cross-purposes.
When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the region squared off in reaction: Pakistan joined the United States and Saudi Arabia—backed by a strong U.N. Security Council resolution—while Iran joined an Indo-Russian policy of backing the northern alliance in the split resistance in Afghanistan. When the Soviets withdrew in 1988-89, what followed was an indirect Pak-Iran confrontation in northern and western Afghanistan.
After the Soviet defeat, Pakistan formed the Afghan government-in-exile in Peshawar but excluded the Shia militias of Afghanistan from it, thus excluding Iran from the final solution. After 9/11, when an American-led international force attacked the Taliban regime, Pakistan joined it while Iran, together with India and Russia, remained on the sidelines. Meanwhile, Saudi influence in Pakistan grew and Pakistan’s policy of fielding Saudi-funded nonstate actors led to the killing of Shias in Pakistan. Almost half a century of bad relations today hinders normalization and prevents Pakistan from adopting neutrality in the Arab-Iran cold war.