The Iran thaw presents unprecedented opportunities for Nawaz Sharif’s government.
“We have reached an agreement,” Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif announced on Nov. 23 about the six-month interim deal struck in Geneva between his once-pariah country and Western powers. The unprecedented agreement over Iran’s nuclear program is one of the most signal developments in global politics in decades. Its impact on Muslim-majority states, including Pakistan, will prove significant.
For years, the merchants of hate have ranted and rambled on about hyped-up threat perceptions from the Muslim world. This has been a most lucrative and dangerous industry. Prejudice took precedent where deliberation would have done. Ignorance and suspicion trumped knowledge and cooperation, reinforcing toxic divides. Anti-Americanism became the creed of Muslim-world politicians, claiming and endangering countless lives.
Geneva is a break from the debilitating hatreds of the past. It finally shows some cool-headedness in Washington. Like its decision to not launch military strikes in Syria, the U.S. seems to be learning the limits of its awesome power. Post-Geneva, Washington is expected to engage with Iran more widely, not just on issues of nuclear disarmament, and such engagement will reframe U.S. involvement in the Middle East and South Asia for a sanguine outcome.
As a result of the Iran-West thaw, we may possibly witness the beginning of some end to the bloodletting trends in the Muslim world. Several realignments are now in order: U.S. relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia, Syria; Iranian relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India; Saudi relations with Israel.
Both Saudi Arabia and Israel bitterly opposed normalization with Iran. The U.S. must now use its leverage with both these countries to ensure that their decades-old anti-Iran agenda is shelved. Israel’s opposition to the Iran thaw helps sanctify the process for many Muslims. It reifies the impression that the Geneva diplomacy was “untainted.” It also signals that the U.S. is finally making its foreign policy in the Middle East independent of Israeli concerns. President Barack Obama has turned down Israeli exhortations to bomb Iran’s nuclear sites and has scorned the Jewish state for proceeding with the construction of settlements in Palestinian areas. This independence from Israel has not been duly acknowledged in Muslim states.
Middle Eastern states have also been using and funding militant groups as proxy armies against each other. Like the U.S., the Saudis have a long history of supporting nonstate actors. It is doing just that in Syria by backing the Al Qaeda-affiliated rebels. It is also keeping the regional militant ecosystems alive by lavishing petrodollars on nefarious groups in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, and Pakistan. The Riyadh-Washington partnership, built around a shared hostility toward Iran, will now have to be redone—especially since the Obama administration appears to have discovered the folly of war through proxies, who, to take Syria’s example, may be as unsavory as those they are being funded to fight.
For Pakistan and Afghanistan, Iran’s neighbors, the U.S.-Iran engagement will help fight back Al Qaeda and the Taliban. This engagement already existed through backchannels, but its deepening now will prove useful for the security of both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Iran and Saudi Arabia have also been fueling sectarian warfare in Pakistan by funding, respectively, Shia and Sunni militant groups. This needs to end. And the Iran thaw can help end it.
Geneva also means that Islamabad can now go back to Tehran and reactivate and fund the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project, which had fallen afoul of the U.S. Indeed, Sartaj Aziz, who advises Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on foreign policy and national security, requested just this when he met Zarif in Tehran on Nov. 26. Given a Saudi prince’s recent claim—which has thus far not been denied by Islamabad—that Sharif is “very much Saudi Arabia’s man,” this is good news. It shows that Sharif’s government is able to prove the Saudi prince wrong. Pakistan needs this pipeline project to materialize. It may now even witness India, which withdrew under U.S. pressure, returning to it. An Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline, as originally envisaged, would prove invaluable for regional peace.
Bringing Iran back in from the cold is a wise move. It should be embraced by Muslim-majority states, and especially by Saudi Arabia. The interim agreement is only six months, and it should hold. During this time, Sharif’s government must do all it can to extricate Pakistan from the byzantine and bloody politics of the Middle East. It’s time Pakistan watched out for itself.