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Iran tensions

US-Iran tensions challenge Pakistan's balancing act

Islamabad aims to avoid angering Shiites as it protects Belt and Road projects

U.S. President Donald Trump, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan and Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Pakistan is trying to distance itself from U.S.-Iran tensions, not only to avoid getting caught up in violence but also to keep the Belt and Road infrastructure projects on track. (Photos by Reuters, AP)

KARACHI -- In the wake of heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran since American forces killed Iran's top commander General Qasem Soleimani on Jan. 3, Pakistan, Iran's neighbor, has been trying to stay neutral for the sake of its domestic stability, due to its large minority of Shiite Muslims.

Soleimani, a prominent commander in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was killed in a U.S. drone strike near Baghdad Airport in Iraq. Soleimani was considered to be the architect of Iran's proxy wars across the Middle East -- Syria and Iraq being notable neighbors. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed to take revenge for the killing of the general. On Jan. 8, Iran launched a series of missile attacks on two U.S. military bases in Iraq, which were reportedly used in the attack on Soleimani.

Pakistan has adopted a cautious approach to the situation. On Jan. 6, addressing the senate, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said that Pakistan would not become a party to the conflict between Iran and the U.S.

"Pakistan's soil will not be used against any other state," Qureshi told the Senate.

On Jan. 8, Prime Minister Imran Khan asked Qureshi to visit Iran, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. to convey a message that Islamabad will not be a part of this conflict.

There were fears that Pakistan's soil might again be used against Iran in a conflict with the U.S. In the 1980s Pakistan's territory was used against the Soviet Union. After 9/11 in 2001, Pakistan again helped the U.S. in the war on terror in Afghanistan.

However, experts believe that Pakistan cannot be a party to a conflict against Iran due to its large Shiite population, which has religious sympathies and affiliation with Shiite-majority Iran.

James M. Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore, said that Pakistan has the world's largest minority population of Shiite Muslims with sympathies for Iran. "The best thing for Pakistan would be to remain on the sidelines in case of conflict [between Iran and U.S.]," he told the Nikkei Asian Review.

Abubakar Siddique, editor of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Gandhara website, said that in an ideal world, Pakistan cannot afford to become a U.S. ally against neighboring Iran. "Cautious statements by Pakistani leaders urging Tehran and Washington to de-escalate or offering to mediate to defuse their tensions are indicative of this realization," he said.

Pakistan also sees the need to stay away from the anti-Iran coalition as it has recently started to cooperate with Iran in securing their mutual border. "After more than 15 years of unrest and cross-border raids and insurgent attacks, Tehran and Islamabad appear to be finally cooperating on stabilizing their 900-km-long border that divides the restive region of Balochistan into the two countries," said Siddique who is also author of the book "The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key to the Future of Pakistan and Afghanistan."

But Pakistan may face pressure from Saudi Arabia, its ally and a source of financial support. In December, Pakistan opted out of the Kuala Lumpur Summit, a meeting of leaders of Muslim nations, at the last moment. The event was organized under the leadership of Turkey, Iran and Malaysia.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan later alleged that Pakistan had opted out of the summit after it was threatened with economic sanctions by Saudi Arabia. The government of Pakistan did not categorically deny this allegation and Foreign Minister Qureshi said that Pakistan had not attended the summit to prevent divisions in the Muslim world. "Islamabad had decided to skip the summit if it could not resolve the differences between Malaysia and Saudi Arabia," said Qureshi.

Dorsey believes that Saudis have demonstrated in the past that they can exercise influence over Pakistan. "Unlike the [Kuala Lumpur] summit, Pakistan has domestic concerns in this case relating to its Shiite population and it will likely push back on any Saudi Pressure to side against Iran," he added.

Experts say that Pakistan will keep its balancing act, also to avoid a negative impact on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the Pakistan component of China's Belt and Road Initiative. Dorsey believes that if Iran -- which is close to China -- and the U.S. engaged in a direct violent confrontation, it would affect the progress of the CPEC and the chances of its timely completion. "A devastating war in the region will only add to the problems faced by CPEC and further diminish its potential impact," said Siddique.

China, too, is expected to make all possible efforts to avoid a confrontation to protect its own interests in the region. Many experts believe that China would also support Pakistan's effort not to engage in any armed conflict against Iran.

Mohan Malik, professor of strategic studies at the National Defense College of United Arab Emirates, believes that Pakistan's geopolitical significance in Washington's regional security calculus has increased due to the current situation. "Beijing is likely to double down on the speedy completion of infrastructure projects in order to place itself in an advantageous position," he told Nikkei.

Malik believes that China can also play an active role in preventing hostilities in the region by not only influencing Pakistan but also Iran. "As a major buyer of Iran's energy exports, and as Iran's largest investor and a top provider of weaponry to Tehran, China certainly has some cards to play in the Middle East," said Malik.

He added that whether or not Beijing will choose to exercise its influence in averting any U.S.-Iran confrontation remains to be seen.

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