Pakistan Edgy Over US-Iran Tension

It means only trouble for a country with a restive western province

By Salman Rafi Sheikh

On January 5, thousands of people, most of them Shi’ite, rallied in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city and its most ethnically and religiously diverse. Carrying pictures of Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei and Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds military force who was killed by a Jan. 3 US drone strike, and chanting “Death to America” and “Death to Israel,” they clashed with the police while trying to force their way into the tightly-guarded American consulate. 

It is a fact that Iran, much as Saudi Arabia supports Sunni groups, has nurtured Shi’ite groups in Pakistan. As such, while Iran may not as yet see Pakistan as a battleground against the West and/or the United States, Tehran does see Pakistan as a land in which to fight a proxy Saudi sectarian war. 

Pakistan has about 25 million people who belong to the Shi’ite sect. With Iran being a Shi’ite majority country, the Shi’ite minority in Pakistan relates to it directly. Thousands visit Iran every year from Pakistan, including the Hazaras from Balochistan—a minority ethnic and sectarian group that has been repeatedly targeted by Sunni extremist groups. 

Although Iran’s level of support for these groups has been relatively lower, this would most likely transform in the wake of increasing US-Iran tensions—a growing fear among Pakistan’s diplomatic and security circles, according to diplomatic sources in Pakistan. 

This fear has real and concrete basis. Consider this: even in 2019, despite the fact that overall terrorism-related incidents and attacks were considerably on the decline as compared to previous years and decades, at least separate 14 sectarian-related attacks (some of them high impact) took place in various parts of the country. Shi’ite activists, undoubtedly, continue to “disappear” from Karachi. 

It was perhaps the same fear of sectarian radicalization that made Pakistan refuse to participate in Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen and consolidate the Saudi-led coalition’s position vis-à-vis Iran-supported Houthis. 

However, given that Pakistan has a direct 900-km long geographical connection with Iran, US-Iran tensions, even if these tensions do not lead to a war, Pakistan’s position will remain critical. What makes matters worse is that this border is a very loosely guarded one. In fact, it a source of all illegal supplies of diesel from Iran and contributes to the informal economy of Balochistan’s remote areas. 

At the same time, Iran’s connections with smugglers of oil and diesel give it an edge that it can use to its advantage against Pakistan if the latter decides to become, once again, a US ally against Iran. 

US-Iran tensions, therefore, can give rise to Shi’ite radicalization in Pakistan. With a minority sectarian group becoming radicalized and militarized against the majority, Pakistan’s political landscape will be no different from that of Iraq. Hence, Pakistan’s diplomacy to genuinely help defuse crisis. 

In other words, Pakistan’s emphasis on ‘neutrality’ has a genuine basis, and the discourse of “peace” goes well beyond the mere rhetoric that other countries, not likely to be in the line of fire, have been expressing. 

Besides the sectarian factor, ethno-nationalism is the other political choke point that Pakistan must consider in the wake of increasing US-Iran tensions. There is the long border the two share along the restive province of Balochistan. Given Iran’s connections with separatist groups, Pakistan’s decision to become a US and Saudia ally against Iran would entice Iran into increasing its support for the separatist groups and destabilize an already-rebellious province in which India has encouraged firebrand leaders to call for independence. 

In Balochistan, an ethno-national separatist movement has been going on for more than a decade, although continuous military operations and a huge presence of intelligence agencies have weakened it a lot. 

Nonetheless, increasing Iranian involvement might become a kind of cataclysmic event that could ignite geo-political sparks elsewhere as well. Hence Pakistan’s repeated emphasis on ‘peace’ and ‘dialogue’, and its willingness to run diplomatic errands between the US, Saudi Arabia and Iran, even though its relations with Iran have never been strong enough to help sustain a real mediation. 

What adds to Pakistan’s problems is the fact Balochistan lies on China’s CPEC route. It is Pakistan’s resource-rich and strategically important province, and has one of the most significant ports in the region, Gwadar, currently being developed and run by the Chinese as a part of CPEC. 

Significantly enough, Gwadar is located in Mekran, a region where the insurgency level is high as compared to other regions of Balochistan. In the wake of Iran supporting Baloch Liberation Front (BLF), being led by Dr. Allah Nazar Baloch, a direct threat to Gwadar will emerge, threatening the entire CPEC project. 

Increasing US-Iran tensions, therefore, could give rise to both sectarian and ethno-national waves in Pakistan—something that Pakistan ill afford at a time when its economy is struggling to survive, and the incumbent political government has little idea about fixing it.

In other words, Pakistan’s emphasis on ‘neutrality’ has genuine basis, and the discourse of ‘peace’ goes well beyond the mere rhetoric of peace that other countries, not likely to be in the line of fire, have been expressing. 

While an actual war is highly unlikely to break-out between the US and Iran, increasing tensions and Pakistan’s historically pro-US and pro-Saudi position are making vulnerable. While Pakistan may continue to emphasize diplomacy, it remains that it can neither change its sectarian landscape, nor alter the geography of Balochistan. Its vulnerability has not got exacerbated in the wake of US-Iran tensions. 

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistan-based academic and a longtime contributor to Asia Sentinel