Provoking a Pakistani-Iranian Alliance

For those who need more nightmares to keep them awake at night, consider:
The U.S. is rapidly alienating nuclear Muslim Pakistan; Israel is threatening to attack non-nuclear Iran. Are Washington decision-makers thinking about the long-term implications of their extremist tactics toward these two large Muslim neighbors?
It should be obvious to all decision-makers that simultaneously alienating and threatening (not to mention actually attacking) Pakistan and Iran without offering either a remotely acceptable alternative constitutes a potent brew. Iran alone poses only a small challenge to the U.S.-centric global political system, but Iran and Pakistan together are already too big to isolate. Backed by Russia and China, Pakistan and Iran could transform the global strategic situation…and it is Washington that is provoking this transformation.
It is true that lots of evidence points the other way. Much of Pakistani society has traditionally had  pro-Western sympathies. Pakistan is also a Saudi ally, and Riyadh would presumably be greatly irritated by Pakistani nuclear aid to Iran, and yet, it seems to have put up quite nicely with the alleged previous Pakistani nuclear aid to Iran, an old story recently back in the news. Would a quid pro quo to Riyadh suffice to persuade them to look the other way? It is also true that Sunni Pakistan and Shii Iran face religious obstacles to smooth relations. Finally, political and economic dissatisfaction on the part of the Baluchi minority on both sides of the Pakistani-Iranian border provoke bilateral tensions.
Reasons to Cooperate:
Nevertheless, the two countries have plenty of reasons to cooperate:
  • Hostility along their common border raises the probability of instability among local minorities, the importance of which will only rise when the planned gas pipeline from Iran through Pakistani Baluchistan opens so Baluchi unrest is not just a problem but a reason for cooperation;
  • Both would like to see U.S. influence in Afghanistan decline;
  • Pakistan needs Iranian hydrocarbons and Iran needs trade partners;

  • Pakistan and Iran have a common interest in evading Western sanctions on Iranian oil exports, with a Pakistani refinery recently having closed as a result of the sanctions;
  • Even religion is a two-sided coin, for Shia and Sunnis are both Muslim and the greater the degree of perceived threat from the West, the greater the tendency of each to perceive common interests as Muslims.
Under Attack
But perhaps the most compelling reason for Pakistan and Iran to cooperate is that they both may feel that they are under U.S. attack. The argument that Iran is already under attack by Israel and perhaps the U.S. has been made repeatedly [e.g., LATimes 12/4/11]. Whether the U.S. is leading any such attack or not and whether or not it is even aware of such an attack, Iran must surely hold it to blame given the blind support by certain U.S. politicians and talking heads, some of whom hold Israeli passports, for right-wing Israeli militant goals. As for Pakistan, there is no argument about whether or not the U.S. is attacking, but only about whether or not U.S. attacks have been secretly permitted by the Pakistani regime. Whether or not that is the case, many Pakistanis surely resent the resultant carnage (over 2,000 killed by U.S. drone attacks since 2004 in Pakistan according to one calculation). 
These events are likely to have three results:
  1. To enhance the power of the defiant Iranian ruling elite and the influence within it of extremists (i.e., those willing to match the extreme measures being used against them);
  2. To undermine the power of the current Pakistani regime and empower anti-American factions;
  3. To push Iran and Pakistan closer together out of perceived necessity.
Pakistan As Irans Model
Each country has a military with enormous political power. Pakistans ability to defy the world and acquire nuclear arms without being punished (indeed, with the result that it was rewarded) may well be making it the model for Irans increasingly influential military politicians. AEIs Ali Alfoneh has made this argument, which should be considered on its merits independent of the less carefully argued conclusions of Alfonehs piece. The logical conclusion of the argument that Irans military is following the Pakistani model is that Irans military believes that only nuclear arms can give Iran both the national security and international standing that any major nation would aspire to have.
Pakistan As the Second Iran
Simon Tisdall has warned in the Sidney Morning Herald that submissive Pakistan could be transformed into a second independent-minded Iran:
The belief that impoverished, divided Pakistan has no alternative but to slavishly obey could turn out to be one of the seminal strategic miscalculations of the 21st century. Alternative alliances with China or Russia aside, Muslim Pakistan, if bullied and scorned enough, could yet morph through external trauma and internal collapse into quite a different animal. The future paradigm is not another well-trained Indonesia or Malaysia. It is the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The implications of Tisdalls warning, which he does not explain, are serious. A Pakistani transformation into a new global political system challenger in cooperation with its neighbor Iran and under the protection of both China and Russia would give rise to a vastly larger challenge to American superpower aspirations and Israeli security concerns. Pakistan is thought to have as many nuclear bombs as Israel, not to mention being much more difficult for Israel to attack. Many may view the Islamic Republic as sui generis; alliance with Pakistan would transform not just its strategic situation but also its call for restructuring of the global political system into something that could not easily be dismissed.
The challenge of a coordinated Iranian-Pakistani campaign against American direction of the global political system would go far beyond the mere logistics of Israeli efforts to maintain regional military dominance. First, it would make clear to all but the most provincial Americans that Iran is not isolated. Second, it would unite Shia and Sunni. Third, by virtue of Russian and Chinese support, it would transcend religion, making Iran and Pakistan global champions of an anti-superpower alliance that would find sympathetic observers in every corner of the globe. Fourth, that global role would fit smoothly into the Moscow and Beijing playbooks, encouraging them to adopt a tougher line toward the U.S., which would in turn encourage Iran and Pakistan. In the current context of a U.S. already appearing steadily less in tune with the world, less able to exert its influence without the resort to violence, and less able to profit from the use of that violence in a world desperate for more fundamental and judicious problem-resolution strategies, flipping Pakistan into an Iranian ally and system-challenger, with both under the formal protection of Russia and China could transform the global political system into a nightmare for American decision-makers.
Common International Situation
As Pakistani-U.S. relations deteriorate, the international situation facing Iran and Pakistan is starting to look increasingly similar. Russia and China are cooperating to build an economic and security bloc capable of resisting U.S. influence and are each major trade partners with Iran, while China has long supported Pakistan. That background makes all the more significant the November news that both Pakistan and Iran are moving toward full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). One of Pakistans goals in joining is to gain support for its plan to import Iranian gas. Pakistans drift away from the West toward now cooperative Russia and China thus has both strategic and economic rationales.
The Evidence So Far
While much of the above is a warning about the future, the situation on the ground has already evolved significantly to U.S. disadvantage:
Iran and Pakistan are allegedly supporting the Taliban;
Iran and Pakistan have just agreed to fight the flow of narcotics from Afghanistan;
Pakistan has sought help from Iran in improving its medical infrastructure in remote areas;
The two sides have recently agreed to reform regulations and establish a joint investment bank to enhance bilateral trade;
Pakistan has allegedly just rejected U.S. pressure to give up its plans to import Iranian gas.
Washingtons Choice
The future course of Iranian-Pakistani ties remains very much up in the air. No fatal tipping point is yet clearly visible. Nevertheless, subordinate dynamics are gaining strength while dominant dynamics are weakening. The rate at which those changes are occurring is neither obvious, constant, nor linear. An exponential rise in, say, Pakistani popular anger, Pakistani military humiliation, or Iranian risk perception could rapidly take initiative out of American hands. The lack of U.S. sympathy for the plight of the Pakistani people and steadfast refusal of Washington to countenance a strategic compromise with Iran that would offer it the option of an independent foreign policy combined with respectful treatment by the West should be seen in Washington strategic thinking circles as ominous signs.
Washington has at least two addictions that undermine American interests:
  • The addiction to force as the answer to global Muslim political grievances;
  • The inability to discern the fundamental distinctions between U.S. national security and the factional goals of the extreme right wing in Israel represented by Netanyahu, Lieberman, and AIPAC.
Until Washington recognizes these weaknesses in its strategic calculus, the prognosis for American influence in Central Asia will get steadily bleaker.

As for Pakistani-Iranian relations, the mid-term bilateral trend is toward closer cooperation, while the mid-term global trend is toward leaning to the Soviet-Chinese side. The momentum of the double shift, with bilateral and global trends forming a positive feedback cycle, is intensifying in response to U.S. intransigence to the point that a fundamental rethinking of its strategic calculus toward Central Asia by Washington will probably be required to prevent the transformation of Pakistan into a significant ally of Iran over the next few years.

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4 comments on “Provoking a Pakistani-Iranian Alliance

  1. Author's Update:

    Within hours of posting this essay, Pakistan has been reported demanding a formal rewrite of the rules of behavior for the U.S. to govern its military cooperation with Pakistan against Islamic radicals. See http://tribune.com.pk/story/302394/anti-terror-cooperation-pakistan-to-rewrite-rules-of-engagement/.)

    This underscores my conclusion that preventing degradation of US-Pakistani ties is up to Washington, which now appears faced with the tough (for superpowers) decision to treat Pakistan as an independent equal and negotiate for a positive-sum solution.

    That solution will no doubt require a fundamental rethinking of Washington's approach to Islamic radicalism, involving the acceptance of the right of Muslims to be radical as long as such radicalism is political rather than violent. In return, Washington's foreign policy will also have to be political rather than violent. And of course, those who want violence will try to upset this two-legged applecart. Hence the need for careful diplomacy, something almost precluded by the coming election. Most unfortunate for the U.S.

    And yet, Obama promised an investigation, and Gilani responded with extraordinary restraint. Imagine what U.S. Congressmen would have said if Pakistan had blown away a bunch of U.S. soldiers! So, hope is not yet lost.

    In any case, my congratulations to Islamabad, if it is serious about establishing its independence and then negotiating calmly. I only hope Washington can find the willpower to meet it halfway.

  2. Author's Update:

    The latest news as of Dec. 10 is that Pakistan has upgraded defenses along its border with Afghanistan, but against aerial attack, not against insurgents. In case someone in Washington fails to get the point, the upgrade is explicitly aimed against the U.S. How long will it be before Pakistan gets Russian defensive missiles?

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