Pakistan’s parliament has unanimously passed a resolution affirming the country’s neutrality in the Yemen conflict, rebuffing a Saudi Arabian request for fighter jets, ground troops and warships to join the Saudi-led Operation Decisive Storm against Houthi rebels, who are aided by Iran.
That has avoided, for now at least, a showdown between Pakistan and neighbouring Iran; the first the Muslim world’s only nuclear power, the other suspected of ambitions to break that monopoly. But just how long Pakistan’s neutrality in the Yemen conflict will last depends on two factors: Islamabad’s reading of the balance of power between the Iranian-led Shia bloc and the Saudi-dominated Sunni bloc, and, more importantly, on Tehran’s ability to peacefully manage the cold peace that exists with Islamabad.
A number of issues divide the two Muslim neighbours. Ever since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Pakistan’s leaders have held an ambiguous position towards Iran’s call for an Islamic world revolution. On the one hand, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan’s military dictator between 1977 and 1988, famously hailed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as the “symbol of Islamic insurgence”. But since then Zia, killed in a mysterious air crash, and his successors have moved closer to the United States – a power that Khomeini depicted as “the Great Satan” and arch-enemy of the Islamic Republic.
At times mediator, and other times balancer, this ambiguity has secured Islamabad considerable leverage over Iran, as well as those who fear Iran’s regional influence.
The examples abound: Pakistan has provided moderate support to the Iran’s nuclear programme, but may in the future be just as accommodating to the requests for scientific and technical assistance from Tehran’s adversaries – including Saudi Arabia, a long-time ally – which may desire to deter a possible Iranian bomb with a nuclear capability of its own. Another constant irritant is Pakistan’s tacit support for armed groups in the long-restive Iranian border province of Sistan-Baluchistan, which engage in terrorist attacks against bases of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), police stations and frontier guard posts.
Iranian military commanders have frequently accused Pakistan of providing a safe haven for those groups. However, on other occasions Islamabad has extradited those same combatants if Tehran demonstrated a readiness to pay the price demanded by Islamabad.
Shia make up about 20% of Pakistan’s 182 million Sunni-majority population; the largest Shia community outside Iran. They constitute another source of conflict between Tehran and Islamabad. Khomeini, and since 1989, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose official website includes an Urdu section, have constantly sought to expand Iranian influence among their Pakistani co-religionists.
A large number of Pakistani Shia seem to be enrolled at theological seminaries in the holy city of Qom and other Iranian cities. Separately, the Islamic Republic has financed charitable organisations such as the Imam Khomeini Aid and Relief Committee, operating in Pakistan, one of the most visible attempts by Tehran to influence Pakistani Shia.
Less visible are Tehran’s attempts to establish and train an armed Pakistani militia, as evidenced by recent funeral services in Pakistan for 15 Pakistani Shia killed in Syria and Iraq fighting alongside an Iranian “foreign legion” against Sunni-dominated, largely jihadist, forces.
The Pakistani Shia appear to be part of the newly established Zeinabiyoun Brigade, an Urdu-speaking branch of the Quds Force, the elite and external operations wing of the Revolutionary Guards that controls these non-Iranian Shia groups. The Pakistani volunteers of the Zeinabiyoun Brigade may well explain their desire to “protect the Shia shrines in Syria and Iraq” as the driving force behind their mobilisation. But the veterans of this unit could potentially be deployed to Pakistan by Tehran.
Human Rights Watch attests that “thousands of Shia” have been killed in Pakistan over the years by Sunni extremists in sectarian violence which Islamabad is either unwilling or unable to stop. These issues raise questions concerning Iran’s ability to peacefully manage the cold peace with Pakistan.
While Tehran will most probably tolerate Pakistan’s attempts to play the role of mediator between Iran and Tehran’s regional adversaries, further terrorist incidents on Iran’s eastern borders could provoke a reaction from the IRGC, such as attacking its enemy’s safe havens on Pakistani soil. Regardless of whether Iranian nationals or the Zeinabiyoun Brigade engage in such an operation, the conflict between Iran and Pakistan could escalate fast. Such a scenario may also change the Pakistani leadership’s calculations concerning the military intervention of Sunni powers in distant YemenThe
This article by Ali Alfonen originally appeared in Arab Weekly