The top leaders of Pakistan and Iran, on Thursday, 18 May 2023, inaugurated the first border market in Pishin, a remote town in Pakistani Balochistan. The marketplace is the first of six to be constructed along the Pakistan-Iran border under a 2012 agreement between the two countries. The two leaders also inaugurated an electricity transmission line that will provide Iranian electricity to some of Pakistan’s border regions. Does this ostensibly small step by the two countries indicate a bigger change – a shift in the poles of global power?
The global power dynamics can be compared with Earth’s magnetic field. Since the forces that generate our magnetic field are constantly changing, the field itself is also in continual flux, its strength waxing and waning over time. This causes the location of Earth’s magnetic north and south poles to gradually shift, and to even completely flip locations every 300,000 years or so. That the poles of global power, even as the Earth’s magnetic poles, are shifting can be discerned after the recent thawing of relations between Iran and the Gulf monarchies – a shift that was brokered by China, the emerging pole of power after the demise of the erstwhile Soviet Union.
Was Uncle Sam’s wink also behind the Chinese-brokered deal?
We say this because the Gulf -monarchies – Saudi Arabia and the city-states dotting its south-eastern periphery, cannot even think about taking any step that would displease the US. The same applies, to a much greater degree, to Pakistan. Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait are absolute monarchies that are threatened by internal instability due to the ever-growing awareness of their local populations as much as due to the external threat from Iran. They need the US, and now Israel also, to underwrite their rule.
As for Pakistan, it has remained under the US thumb since the 1950s. The inclination of the Pakistani rulers towards the inclusion of foreign powers, particularly the US, in addressing Pakistan’s domestic issues and regional conflicts can be attributed to their lack of confidence and, more importantly, as a ploy to drag their feet in the resolution of these very issues. This is because they want to keep the pot boiling as it facilitates self-perpetuation. Towards this end, they allow external forces to play an exaggerated role in Pakistan’s domestic politics. In the 21st Century, even states like Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Qatar have emerged as power brokers in Pakistani politics.
Starting in the 1950s, American diplomats were gradually allowed to play the role of kingmakers. Pakistanis, to this day, as a gesture of ridicule, refer to the US ambassador in Pakistan as the “viceroy”. President Ayub Khan, for a brief period after the 1965 War, tried to defy the US in his famous “Friends, not masters” philosophy but was soon booted out of power in a US-backed agitation that suddenly gripped Pakistan in October 1968.
Given the background of Pakistani and Arab leaders, how could it be possible for the Gulf monarchs and their Pakistani counterparts to cut deals with Iran without the US blessings? A specimen of the dread in which Pakistani rulers hold the US is the fate of the Pakistan- Iran oil pipeline. The idea was conceived by a young Pakistani civil engineer Malik Aftab Ahmed Khan, a graduate of NED University, in mid-1950, when an article of his was published by the Military College of Engineering, Risalpur.
A preliminary agreement was signed in 1995
This agreement foresaw the construction of a pipeline from Iran’s South Pars gas field to Karachi. The project, for one reason or another, dragged on till 2010 when the US asked Pakistan to abandon it. As a reward for canceling the project, Pakistan would receive assistance from the US for the construction of a liquefied natural gas terminal and importing electricity from Tajikistan through Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor. In 2012, Saudi Arabia, perhaps after a nod from the US, also offered to deliver an “alternative package” to Pakistan if the country abandoned its cooperation with Iran. In addition to the oil package, Saudis also offered a cash loan and oil facility. The project remains mothballed since then.
Why is this recent cozying up between the Arabs and Iran? And why the present Pakistani rulers, known for their obeisance to the US, bordering on slavery, have suddenly warmed up to Iran, sanctioned by the US since the overthrow of Reza Shah? We should not compare the post-Cold War alignments with the rivalry between the US and the erstwhile Soviet Union. The world is no longer divided into two camps based on opposing ideologies. It is not a matter of fighting to death for either of the contestants.
In many areas, the United States and China complement each other. While China blows hot and cold in the Pacific, it is very careful about overplaying its hand. We can only conjecture about the undercurrents in China’s role in bringing together the Arabs and Iran and the resultant opening up between a limp Pakistan and Iran. It will take many years before the truth unfolds.
Saleem Akhtar Malik is a Pakistan Army veteran who writes on national and international affairs, defense, military history, and military technology. He Tweets at @saleemakhtar53. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.