AFTER Prime Minister Imran Khan declined to travel abroad immediately in order to focus on a domestic governance agenda, there had been an added emphasis on which foreign leader would travel to Pakistan first. That Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif is the first foreign leader to meet the new prime minister is of some significance then. To begin with, it demonstrates that Mr Khan’s pledge in his victory speech on July 26 to stabilise and improve relations with Pakistan’s neighbours is a serious goal of his government. Mr Khan’s meeting with the Iranian foreign minister ahead of a visit to Pakistan by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also sends a signal that the PTI government will attempt to chart an independent course. Furthermore, Mr Zarif’s meeting will not have gone unnoticed in Saudi Arabia. So if Mr Khan has struck the right and courageous note in foreign policy, the PTI government will almost certainly need to navigate past serious external challenges to an independent-minded foreign policy.
To be clear, it is in Pakistan’s essential national interest to maintain good ties with Iran and, indeed, all its neighbours. But the leadership in Saudi Arabia has virtually declared Iran a mortal enemy, and US President Donald Trump is determined to bring the Iranian economy to its knees with severe unilateral sanctions. Pakistan needs equally stable relations with all three countries, and, therefore, must tread a difficult path. Emphasising border security cooperation with Iran and supporting it in its tussle with the US over the nuclear deal that the latter country has unilaterally pulled out of are sensible options to pursue at the moment. The nuclear deal, formally the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, was painstakingly negotiated not just between Iran and the US but the four other permanent members of the UN Security Council, Germany and the rest of the EU too. All signatories other than the US remain committed to the agreement and most are willing to consider improvements to the deal to address the Trump administration’s hostility to it.
While it is unlikely that the US will reverse course quickly or that Saudi Arabia’s hostility towards Iran will ebb anytime soon, Pakistan and those countries still committed to the JCPOA are taking a principled stance in support of dialogue and international agreements. At some point, better sense must prevail, and Pakistan and Iran stand to make significant gains from ramping up bilateral trade and other economic activities. Nearly a decade ago, there was, briefly, hope that Pakistan would find a way to build and activate the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, but fierce US opposition prevented Pakistan from getting Iranian gas at a time of great shortages in the country. Today, Pakistan ought to be able to explain to the US and Saudi Arabia — in fact, both should realise themselves — that its legitimate economic and security needs require stable ties with Iran and other regional countries.
Published in Dawn, September 2nd, 2018