The Dangerous, Delicate Saudi-Pakistan Alliance
e appeared during negotiations between Iran and the West, and are likely part of a Saudi policy of nuclear ambiguity designed to compel Washington to take a harder line against Tehran.
The first senior Pakistani official to meet King Salman after he took the throne in January was Gen. Rashad Mahmood, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who has operational control over Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Mahmood briefed Sharif before the president embarked on his visit to Saudi Arabia to meet with the new king. Whether or not nuclear cooperation was actually on the agenda, the meeting was likely meant to signal to Tehran and Washington that the Saudis could be interested in a nuclear weapon of their own.
Pakistan, which obtained nuclear weapons in the late 1990s, is unlikely to ever transfer a warhead to Saudi soil. Islamabad has assiduously worked toward becoming recognized as a legitimate, responsible nuclear power and has even attained membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Giving nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia would undermine these efforts. Still, Islamabad has and will continue to allow itself to be used in Riyadh’s posturing toward Tehran and Washington with exaggerated claims of Pakistani nuclear and conventional military assistance.
In all of these cases, it becomes clear that Pakistan will aid Saudi Arabia but only in ways that will not distract from or exacerbate Islamabad’s primary security threats. And that’s precisely why Sharif and his government cannot afford to provoke Iran right now.
Tehran has a number of levers it can use vis-à-vis Islamabad. It could, for example, charge Pakistan penalties for failing to complete construction of a gas pipeline the two countries agreed to build in 2013. The accord mandated that Pakistan complete its portion of the pipeline by the end of 2014 and includes daily penalty charges of around $3 million in case of failure to do so. Islamabad, due to pressure from Washington, has yet to construct its portion of the pipeline. Fines haven’t been levied, though Iran has rejected Pakistani claims that they have been formally waived.
More worrisome is Tehran’s ability to play the sectarianism card. Pakistan, with over 4,000 deaths from Sunni-Shiite violence since 2007, is struggling to put the genie of sectarianism back in the bottle. Iran could add to Pakistan’s woes by using its proxies inside Pakistan to step up the targeted killings of Sunni militants and religious scholars, some of whom have come out in support of Saudi Arabia in recent days.
Iran could also increase its clandestine operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In recent years, Iranian assets have reportedly assassinated a Saudi intelligence official and Pakistani Sunni leaders in Karachi, But Iranian activity in Pakistan today is characterized by relative restraint compared to the 1980s, when Iran sought to export its revolution to Shiites across the world, including in Pakistan, where upwards of 20 percent of the population comes from Islam’s smaller sect. Iranian agents could also play a more active role in sectarian conflicts inside Pakistan and Afghanistan, where there has been an uptick in sectarian violence in recent months. Or Iran could partner with India to support political forces in Afghanistan hostile toward Pakistan.
Sharif understands the dangers. His government must attempt to defuse relations with Tehran in order to have stability at home. The prime minister visited Iran last May and declared that he was ready to “open a new page” in relations between the two countries. That might be a bit ambitious. The close relationship between Sharif, the Pakistan Army, and Riyadh means that they can never fully gain the trust of Tehran. But Sharif can at least hope to keep relations with Iran drama-free.
The Saudis have been there for Pakistan through thick and thin, and Islamabad has little choice but to provide limited assistance to Riyadh in response to its perceived threat from the Houthis in Yemen. But it can assuage Iranian concerns by continuing to engage it on securing their shared border, opening up a bilateral dialogue on stabilizing Afghanistan, and perhaps even positioning itself as an intermediary between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Pakistan, ravaged by terror for more than a decade, can ill-afford to become the next playground for an Iranian-Saudi proxy war. Nearly everyone in Pakistan, including the major Sunni parties, realizes this and opposes Pakistani intervention in Yemen. And so the Pakistani premier will continue to walk this tightrope.