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Monday, June 24, 2013

Iran's Presidential elections and Pakistan's Foreign Policy


Daily Times Monday 24 June 2013
Iran’s Presidential Election: Challenge and Opportunity for Pakistan’s Foreign Policy

Hassan Rowhani has won Iran Presidential elections. This victory has the potential of becoming more than the routine continuation of Iran’s system of governance. His victory will have implications for domestic as well as foreign policy of Iran. Any change in its foreign policy will have implications for global as well as regional geo politics. The global will change may be slower, but regional changes may become more evident much sooner. Pakistan’s foreign policy managers must be closely watching these developments and try to be pro active than wait for reaction when policies start changing and events start happening.
Mr. Rowhani is known for his moderate views and had declared the need for engagement with the West. He seems committed to breaking Iran’s diplomatic isolation. However, one should be cautiously optimistic about the prospective change if any. We must remember that Iran constitution with the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the Supreme Leader and the Guardian Council having the final say on all policy issues is still intact. Which means President does not have the power to make drastic policy changes. However, there is a real possibility that Mr. Rowhani was permitted to contest and win because the real leadership may be ready for some change too. Iran had been feeling the pinch of economic sanctions. Surely the Supreme leader and the leadership council could not have been oblivious to that.
So, even a little opening to the West may mean more than that for the region, more specifically Afghanistan. Even at the height of tensions US had not tried its influence inside Afghanistan and on President Karzai to limit Iran’s role in Afghanistan. United States and Iran shares interest in survival and continuity of the current constitutional dispensation in Afghanistan as the best means to avoid any chance of a Taliban come back. Both also consider Al Qaeda and other Salafi extremists as enemies for their own reasons. Therefore, US has not been averse to Iran’s influence and role in Afghanistan, even when the later demands total US withdrawal from Afghanistan and when on a warpath elsewhere.
So, the potential for cooperation between the or to be more cautious a little positive tolerance of each other inside Afghanistan may be the first step towards a broader improvement of their bilateral relations or at least a decrease in their adversity elsewhere. The dispute over Iran’s Nuclear Program or their differences in the Middle East will not easily go away; however, a positive engagement can result in decreased existing tensions. The argument in the United States against sanctions will be strengthened; whether, they are removed in the short run or not, their application may witness a more sympathetic interpretation. This will mean Indian relations with Iran and via Iran with Afghanistan becoming smoother.
This will open a window of opportunity for Pakistan too. To take advantage of that, Pakistani diplomacy has to be more proactive and not wait for things to happen and then react. Pakistan must make quick moves on the Indian front as announced by the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Pakistan must also start seriously on the Iran Pakistan Gas Pipeline and try to get India back into it. If Pakistan plays its cards well and in time, there is a good possibility of getting international funding for the project, without which it remains a pipe dream. More importantly Pakistan can try to mediate between the US and Iran. Rather than seeing opportunity in US Iran tensions, Pakistan must seek gains in bringing them closer. For that to work for its benefit, Pakistan has to seriously re-visit its Afghan Policy. It needs to be understood such shift should already have been facilitated by improved relations with India. This will lead to a change in the India Centric security paradigm and Pakistan would be able to seek security in increased economic relations than in Religious Extremists, a policy to which PMLN has committed itself in its Manifesto.

Failure to adjust to changing environment will further isolate and make Pakistan irrelevant to Afghanistan. Though one cannot expect Iran to provide US/NATO access to Afghanistan as an alternate to Pakistani route, any move for the better in Iran – US relations, even just decrease in their mutual tensions will have implications for Pakistan’s role and influence vis-a-vis Afghanistan.  Timing is very crucial for any policy to achieve the intended. It is vital to be proactive and not wait for the regional environment to change. Changing at that time will not get Pakistan what it can achieve now. It is important for a progressive, prosperous, democratic and well respected Pakistan to be important for the International community in a positive sense. It has to shed its search for international recognition as a front state against this or that threat which is negative and not lasting. Pakistan can by acting today stay relevant to the conflict, its resolution and become relevant to the post current crisis times as well. There is a Pashto saying ‘When Eid has passed put Hina on the Wall’ (Che Akhtar Ther Shee, Nakreezay Pa Diwaal Othapa).
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