Can Pakistan Mediate Between Iran and the United States?

October 9, 2019

My visit to the Iranian cultural center in Karachi was short-lived. It was 2017, and I was in the city to attend a conference. Despite a warm welcome, I was abruptly asked to leave after just 20 minutes. Pakistani Rangers guarded the exits on my way out as a worried staff member saw to it that I actually left.

Security was tight for a reason. In 1990, the director of a similar Iranian facility in Lahore was assassinated by a member of the anti-Shi’a extremist group Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP). It is unclear whether the motive stemmed from a fear that Iran was exporting revolutionary Shi’a ideology or if it was a retaliation for the assassination of SSP leader Haq Nawaz Jhangvi. The remainder of the 1990s saw similar attacks on the cultural centers in Multan and the murder of Iranian air force cadets in Rawalpindi. These centers — and the very real threats to them — represent the contradictions in ties between Iran and Pakistan. There is a veneer of ceremonial warmth at the surface and a deep tension just below.



During the U.N. General Assembly last month, reports circulated that Saudi and U.S. officials asked Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan to mediate between the Trump administration and Iran. “I immediately spoke to President Rouhani yesterday after the meeting with President Trump, but I can’t say anything right now more than this, except that we are trying and mediating,” said Khan during a press conference. Assuming that the reporting was real — and not planted to boost the country’s diplomatic bona fides — one might ask, can Pakistan serve as an effective mediator? Possibly.

Pakistan is in a unique position to serve as a short-term mediator between Washington and Tehran. Despite the unravelling of negotiations building towards a once-imminent  U.S.-Taliban peace deal, the charismatic Prime Minister Imran Khan and his administration possess a newfound confidence on the world stage. Pakistan is enjoying diplomatic wins in the aftermath of February’s military standoff with Delhi and India’s subsequent suspension of Kashmir’s special status. More importantly, the relationship of Pakistan’s elected leadership and military establishment with Washington and Tehran is distant enough for Islamabad to present itself as an objective mediator but still robust enough to do the job. This opportunity is fleeting, however, as  Pakistan’s own tensions with the United States, Iran, and Saudi Arabia undermine its ability to facilitate dialogue in the long term.

Ties between Washington and Tehran are bad and getting worse. Seventeen months have passed since the Trump administration withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal and reimposed broad economic sanctions on Iran.  Politicians from France’s President Emmanuel Macron to America’s 2020 presidential hopefuls have renewed calls for back-channel diplomacy or direct talks between Tehran and Washington. This is because of concern that a failure to do so will lead Iran to advance its nuclear program and possibly drive military conflict. Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said played a lead role in channeling messages between the two countries in the past. Can Pakistan play a similar role now?

Pakistan: Enemy or Frenemy?

Several barriers may prevent Pakistan from serving as an effective mediator. First, neither Prime Minister Khan nor Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani enjoys full executive authority. Khan is the face of the country’s diplomatic efforts, but the security establishment sets the country’s foreign policy positions. In Iran, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) temper Rouhani’s diplomatic ambitions. Khan and Rouhani can influence the foreign policy positions of their respective countries, but final decisions remain the domain of other stakeholders.

This dynamic is particularly true for bilateral ties between Pakistan and Iran. Intelligence agencies and the military establishment have traditionally driven relations. This was on open display during Prime Minister Khan’s April 2019 visit to Iran when he met with both President Rouhani and Supreme Leader Khamenei. Director of Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), General Asim Munir, accompanied Khan under the official mission of addressing the very real terrorism problem both countries face. But unlike his counterpart in Oman, Prime Minister Khan is not the sole decision maker. This may cause observers to view him, perhaps unfairly, as a mediator to the real mediator — Pakistan’s military establishment.

Second, a culture of distrust pervades Pakistan’s diplomatic relations. Iran and Pakistan enjoy lukewarm relations due to cross-border attacks in Balochistan. Economic activity remains stagnant, due to U.S. sanctions and alleged Saudi pressure on Islamabad not to complete its portion of the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline.

Pakistan and the United States have competing visions for what role the Afghan Taliban should play in the future of Afghanistan. Islamabad advocates for a political settlement that extends political legitimacy to the group, while Washington fights the Taliban on the battlefield.  Washington views Pakistan with unease due to its history of proliferation and for advancing Iran’s nuclear program. Former U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis wrote in his autobiography that “I consider Pakistan to be the most dangerous [country], because of the radicalization of its society and the availability of nuclear weapons.” This is a widely held position among U.S. officials and experts and not unique to Mattis himself.

The Cordial Frigidness of Iran–Pakistan Relations

Iran’s soft power inside Pakistan pales in comparison to that of the United States, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, and even China. However, Iran and Pakistan share a significant cultural heritage that could assist Islamabad in mediating with Tehran. It was not uncommon for the elite of Pakistan’s partition-era generation to read Farsi. Pakistan’s national anthem is also written in Farsi, with only one exclusively Urdu word. As of 2014, there were an estimated 7,000 Pakistanis living in Iran but that number still pales in comparison to the United States and Saudi Arabia which both host more than 1.5 million Pakistanis.  Trade remains underwhelming, but academic exchanges between the various medical and engineering universities of the two countries are common. Trigger points between Iran and Pakistan hinge primarily on matters of security rather than cultural or sectarian enmity.

But Iran’s activities are not strictly limited to grammar instruction. In conversations with former Pakistani diplomats and civil servants, I have found that most blame Saudi Arabia and Iran to varying degrees for the sectarianism Pakistan has experienced since the 1980s. Following the 1979 revolution, Iran set up its cultural centers in Pakistan, recruited aspiring Shi’a clergy to study in Qom and learn a politically proactive version of Shi’ism, and funded the subsequent Shi’a political movements that resulted in Pakistan.

This occurred concurrently with the rise of General Zia-ul-Haq as Pakistan’s military ruler and his campaign to “Arabicize” Sunni Islam in the country. Iran also recruited Pakistani Shi’a to fight in Syria from areas like Parachinar in Pakistan’s western tribal region where the minority sect routinely faces sectarian violence. Even in major cities, terror groups periodically target Shi’a congregation halls known as imambargahs. Pakistani authorities cut cell phone service during Shi’a mourning days to thwart attacks. I once naively picked the martyrdom commemoration of Imam Hussein to visit Peshawar only to find myself without a working cell phone as security quickly cordoned off the streets. These precautions are the result of two decades of sustained attacks on Shi’a religious gatherings. Some estimates place the death toll at over 2,000.

Despite sectarian violence, public opinion of Iran in Pakistan departs from the hostility seen in other primarily Sunni countries. A 2013 Pew poll found that 69 percent of Pakistanis interviewed had a positive view of Iran, the most of the 39 countries surveyed.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s past criticism of Pakistan’s sectarianism is also muted compared to his critiques of other countries. First, he acknowledged Pakistani transgressions against Iran. Speaking to a group of Pakistani Shi’a pilgrims in 1992, he noted that “they [Pakistan’s government and Sunnis] are putting Shias under pressure.” He also referenced the 1988 assassination of Arif Hussaini, a native of Parichinar in Pakistan’s Pashtun tribal belt,  leader of the Shi’a political party Tehrik-e-Jafaria Pakistan, and the representative of Ayatollah Khomeini in Pakistan. Second, Khamenei urged Pakistan’s Shi’a to unite but without any clear direction except to develop cordial relations with Sunni groups to counter the influence of “arrogant powers [the United States and the United Kingdom]” in the country. In 2016, Iranian state propaganda described the two countries as engaged in “progressive reconciliation diplomacy.” This message echoed the Supreme Leader’s face-saving narrative of tensions between Tehran and Islamabad as a mere symptom of U.S. meddling.

Pakistan also shares Iran’s suspicions of U.S. motives in the region. Its characterization of China as an “all-weather friend” adorns murals in Islamabad and is a direct critique of Washington as the unreliable “fair-weather friend.” Prime Minister Khan also campaigned on a message of reducing U.S. influence in Pakistan, including aid, which he once viewed as a primary cause of corruption in the country’s political system.

Cross-border violence in Balochistan is the largest irritant in Pakistan–Iran relations. In December 2018, a Baloch militant group launched an attack from Iran killing six Pakistani paramilitary personnel and leading Islamabad to file a formal protest with Tehran. These incidents are common, and militants use both sides of the border as a base for operations. On the Iranian side, over 3,000 soldiers and border guards have been killed since 2001. Nevertheless, Iran was Prime Minister Khan’s first foreign trip after assuming office. There he discussed the possibility of increasing trade and extending gas pipelines, which had thus far proven untenable due to Iran’s economic isolation. Handshakes aside, a future incident along the border could detract from Pakistan’s ability to serve as a mediator or Iran’s receptiveness to it.

Can Pakistan Overcome its Client-State Image?

Islamabad does a number of things that run counter to U.S. interests — it provides safe-haven to elements of the Taliban, supports anti-Indian terrorist groups, and is building out its nuclear arsenal. At the same time, however, Pakistan is deeply reliant on U.S. and Saudi aid.

In September 2018, the Trump administration announced it was cutting $300 million in military aid to Pakistan. Pakistan still received $423 million in USAID in 2018, and in 2010 this number exceeded $2 billion. For comparison, Oman receives modest U.S. security assistance and no economic aid. According to the U.S. State Department, Oman received over $3 million in anti-terrorism assistance in 2017, $2 million in military training in 2018, and its total 2020 request is $3.4 million.

In 2018, Saudi Arabia agreed to give Pakistan $3 billion in foreign currency support and another $3 billion in oil import deferred payments. Pakistan has a long history of receiving aid from Saudi Arabia, but Prime Minister Khan’s domestic critics accuse him of particularly poor optics in his relations with Riyadh. Most recently, regional news outlets criticized Khan for traveling to the U.N. General Assembly meeting on a Saudi plane. His own citizens accuse him of failing to resolve the plight of over two million Pakistani workers in Saudi Arabia who are subjected to unfair working conditions, deportations, and death sentences with dubious due process.

Some economists and policymakers argue that such aid isn’t responsible for growth, achieves little, and may even do more harm than good. But the perception of Islamabad’s reliance on U.S. and Saudi assistance will undoubtedly place Pakistan’s objectivity as a mediator into question. Increased U.S. sanctions on Iran will only heighten this sentiment. Still, U.S. civilian and military aid to Pakistan has fallen dramatically, and this lull in U.S.–Pakistan relations may present a valuable opportunity for Pakistan to act as a legitimate mediator in Tehran’s eyes.

There is also a widely held perception in the United States and among Western counterproliferation analysts that Saudi Arabia provided funding for Pakistan’s nuclear program in exchange for a nuclear guarantee. However, Riyadh’s push for domestic enrichment suggests a lack of confidence in this assurance — if it exists at all.

Whether Pakistan has extended its nuclear umbrella to cover Saudi Arabia remains unsubstantiated. What is clear, however, is that Pakistan’s nuclear status has given it diplomatic leverage and autonomy. It’s hard to push around a country with nuclear weapons. Add to that concerns that Pakistan is “too nuclear to fail” — in other words, the international community has a stake in Pakistan’s stability, because in the view of many diplomats and world leaders, the alternative could very well be an Islamist government in control of a nuclear arsenal — and it’s easy to understand why Islamabad could be seen as an independent mediator. Pakistan’s military establishment gets away with supporting terrorist groups that undermine U.S. interests in the region so long as it ensures a tolerable level of nuclear security and appears less radicalized to Western allies than the broader society. In other words, the prestige of being a nuclear power makes Pakistan a credible mediator.

The Limits of Pakistan as Mediator

Pakistan’s government is in the midst of a public relations blitz. The world’s attention is on Kashmir after decades of unsuccessful lobbying by Pakistan. Senators Chris Van Hollen, Todd Young, Ben Cardin, and Lindsey Graham wrote a joint letter last month urging President Trump to act on Kashmir. Prime Minister Khan has leveraged a growing relationship with Sen. Lindsey Graham, who described Khan’s government as the “best opportunity in decades to have a beneficial strategic relationship [sic] the US.”  Prime Minister Khan is effective at using social media and public gatherings to rally support. He filled Washington’s Capital One Arena during a speech to Pakistani-Americans in July and recently met with the New York Times’ Editorial Board to discuss their coverage of South Asia and Kashmir in particular.

This environment may lead Pakistan to overestimate its influence in Washington, its diplomatic prowess, and its ability to act as a mediator between the Trump administration and Iran. Islamabad has undoubtedly run a coordinated and effective campaign in response to recent developments in South Asia. However, Pakistan’s success in raising the profile of the Kashmir dispute is as much due to India’s blunders as Islamabad’s newfound diplomatic claws. After all, it was Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration that appeared to grossly exaggerate the effectiveness of airstrikes against an alleged terror camp in Pakistan on February 26, 2019. India also miscalculated the world media’s reaction to a complete lockdown and communications blackout of Kashmir.

Pakistan’s Stakes in American–Iranian Ties

If Washington and Tehran genuinely seek a solution to their disputes, then it would be foolish not to accept Pakistan as an initial mediator. However, Pakistan’s domestic politics and foreign relations may prove too unpredictable for it to serve in the role long-term. The moment for Pakistan’s mediation, therefore, is fleeting.

Islamabad’s relationship with Iran and the United States is warm enough to facilitate dialogue but just acrimonious enough so that neither Tehran nor Washington view Islamabad as an agent of the other. But, Pakistan also isn’t immune to the competition for influence between Saudi Arabia and Iran. So far, Pakistan has managed to largely remain neutral on the conflict in Yemen. However, as the rivalry between Tehran and Riyadh escalates, Pakistan will face increased pressure to pick a side. This risks spoiling its ability to mediate.

Historically, Oman has been the preferred interlocutor in the region. It was precisely Oman’s distance from Saudi influence, despite being a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which made it an ideal mediator between Washington and Tehran in the past. Islamabad’s reliance on its relations with the United States and Saudi Arabia is greater in comparison. However, its status as a nuclear power places a cap on the degree to which it can be coerced. This grants its military establishment the ability to take unchecked foreign policy risks such as periodic sponsorship of terrorist groups without concern that relations with the United States will completely deteriorate. The distance from Washington that this dysfunctional dynamic creates will prove an asset if Pakistan is to be viewed as an objective mediator by Iran.

Islamabad has a stake in improved ties between Washington and Tehran. A nuclear-capable Iran is not in Pakistan’s interest. Islamabad does not benefit from economic chaos in Iran, and a military conflict between Iran and the United States would be disastrous. An isolated Iran prevents the development of regional trade that could benefit Iran, Pakistan, and India alike. The closeness of Iran’s trading relationship with India and the development of the Chabahar Port is not an opportunity cost for Pakistan. The sooner regional trade projects can go forward, the better for Islamabad.

A de-escalation of tensions between the United States and Iran is beneficial for Pakistan in and of itself — acting as mediator will increase its prestige on the world stage. If the Trump administration genuinely seeks a resolution to rising tensions with Iran, then it should cautiously approach Pakistan to serve as a catalyst for dialogue.



Adam Weinstein works in international trade law and regulations. He is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and served in Afghanistan. The views expressed here are his own.

Image: Pakistan Prime Minister’s Office

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