Under Imran Khan govt., Pakistan likely to shift focus from Riyadh to Tehran

August 14, 2018 - 11:20

TEHRAN - As Pakistan’s prime minister-in-waiting Imran Khan prepares to take oath of office next week, there is lot of speculation about his foreign policy, especially Islamabad’s relations with Tehran and Riyadh.

In his victory speech, Khan had made it categorically clear that he would like to strengthen ties with allies in the Middle East, including Iran and Saudi Arabia. During his meeting with the Iranian envoy to Islamabad last week, Khan reiterated his desire to bolster ties with Tehran and even offered to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

While some observers believe Khan, like his predecessors, would have limited say in foreign policy matters, considering the overwhelming influence of military leadership in Pakistan, it is believed that the relations between Iran and Pakistan will improve under Khan, since Pakistan army has also recently warmed up to Iranian military leadership.

A few days ago, Pakistan’s foreign office spokesperson Dr Muhammad Faisal said Pakistan reserves the right to ‘pursue legitimate economic and commercial interests’ with Iran in the wake of re-imposition of sanctions on Tehran by U.S. President Donald Trump, who warned that the countries doing business with the Islamic states might also face the heat.

“We are examining the implications of the U.S.’ re-imposed sanctions on Iran,” he said, “however, Pakistan, being a sovereign state, reserves the right to pursue legitimate economic and commercial interests while respecting the international legal regime,” Faisal added, dropping hints that the new government in Islamabad would not buckle under the U.S. government pressure.

Relations between the two neighboring countries have shown signs of improvement recently and observers are optimistic that bilateral ties would deepen further under Khan’s government in Islamabad.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was one of the world leaders who telephoned Khan and congratulated him over his party’s election victory and invited him to visit Tehran.

It marks a significant shift in Pakistan’s regional policy as his predecessor was seen overtly inclined towards stronger Pakistan-Saudi relations than Pakistan-Iran relations. Writing in The New Arab, Dr. Fazzur Rahman Siddiqui, a fellow at Indian Council of World Affairs, said with the exit of Nawaz Sharif, Saudi Arabia has lost a reliable ally who never concealed his affection for the Gulf states in general, and Saudi Arabia in particular “for both personal and strategic reasons.”

“His close affiliation with the Gulf states no doubt prevented forging of warmer Pakistani ties with Iran. But this might be about to change, as it was in part Imran Khan's political mobilisation and pressure that deterred the erstwhile government from sending Pakistani forces to join the Saudi-led coalition's continuing and catastrophic war in Yemen, after the National Assembly voted against it,” Siddiqui wrote.

It is pertinent to note that Khan, unlike his predecessor, has no family business stake in Saudi or any particular personal affiliation with the Middle East politics. Moreover, as Siddiqui wrote, he owes nothing to Saudi Arabia, unlike Sharif who was granted asylum during his years of exile.

Khan has made it clear that he would seek closer ties with Iran and would revive Iran-Pakistan pipeline project that was neglected under the previous government. The project is expected to meet Pakistan’s growing energy needs and open a new chapter in their bilateral energy ties.

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