The recent announcement of China’s peace agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran initially took the world by surprise. The debate continues as to whether this deal will survive, the implications it may have for the United States, what it means for the Middle East region (including Israel), and what the brokering of the agreement brings this is indicative of China’s rising power. However, the implications of the apparent rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran extend even further, with significant consequences for critical neighboring regions such as South Asia and other populous Muslim countries, including, in particular, Pakistan.
Pakistan has for many years been a front in the proxy war between Riyadh and Tehran that began soon after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Saudi Arabia provided financial and ideological support to many Sunni militant groups trained in Pakistan. discovered by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). he was arming to wage Jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan. But some of these groups, such as Sipah-e-Sahaba, and its offspring, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, turned their guns on the large Shi’a minority in Pakistan. Iran responded by offering support to Pakistan’s Shi’a militias to counter this Sunni militancy. Iran also began cooperating with India in Afghanistan after the Soviets withdrew in 1989 and US attention shifted away from the region. Both New Delhi and Tehran particularly supported the Northern Alliance – made up of a mix of ethnic minorities, including the Shi’a – against the mainly Sunni Pashtun Taliban, which had good relations with Riyadh and Islamabad.
The post-9/11 US intervention in Afghanistan saw a seismic shift in regional alliances. Motivated, in part, by its long-standing rivalry with the United States, Iran began to forge ties with the Taliban as they waged war against the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Pakistan’s relations with Iran also improved during this time. Despite some friction along their shared border, Iran and Pakistan hammered out the possibility of regional energy cooperation, which eventually led to the two countries signing a bilateral natural gas pipeline treaty in 2013. However, the Pakistan is pulling to complete its part of the pipeline. , for fear that Saudi Arabia and America would be displeased about cooperation with its very permissive western neighbor.
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s relationship with the US has been tenuous at best, strained by its different strategic objectives in Afghanistan and America’s growing reliance on India to counter Chinese influence across South and Southeast Asia. On the other hand, Pakistan has doubled its military and diplomatic ties with China, and the two have significantly boosted their economic ties by launching the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in 2015, known as a flagship project of part of China. The ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China has included many countries in the Middle East in the BRI, and has announced a 25-year strategic trade and investment agreement with Iran in 2021, worth between $200 billion and $300 billion. China’s move to join Iran in the BRI may have been motivated in part by its desire to undermine India’s investment in Iran’s deep-sea port of Chabahar on the Indian Ocean, which is seen as a rival to Pakistan’s Chinese-controlled deep-sea port in Gwadar.
For its part, Iran is trying to balance its relations with India and China. India has recently used the Chabahar port to send cargo to Afghanistan, avoiding the need to cross Pakistani territory. Despite being restricted by the international sanctions regime, India received a waiver from the US to buy Iranian oil and invest in Chabahar. It remains to be seen whether India will be able to maintain that relationship with the Islamic Republic as its ties to the US continue to grow. But the growing tension between China and India certainly makes it unlikely that Chabahar and Gwadar can become a “sister port” to help improve trade and wider regional connectivity.
Beijing’s attempt to simultaneously bend Iran and many of the restive Arab states into the BRI may have been a key factor in its decision to pursue intervention in one of the nation’s fiercest rivals. Muslims in the Middle East. This high-profile Chinese diplomatic maneuver has earned praise from other Muslim countries in the Gulf region and beyond, such as the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Pakistan. In the case of Pakistan, in particular, easing the longstanding Saudi-Iranian rivalry could not only help reduce long-standing domestic sectarian frictions but also ease pressure on Pakistani decision-makers to involve Islamabad in controversial proxies elsewhere. in the Muslim world, as happened in Yemen. . That said, even if the fragile Saudi-Iranian rapprochement persists, Pakistan’s ability to improve its ties with the Islamic Republic will remain constrained by concerns about further provoking the US.
Biden administration officials have cautiously welcomed China’s efforts to try to de-escalate tensions in the troubled region while signaling that Iran expects to honor the deal. But for many Muslim-majority countries, including Pakistan, Beijing’s diplomatic efforts are more relevant and beneficial than Washington’s to bring the Gulf states and Israel together to deter Iran.
Dr. is a Non-Resident Scholar. Syed Mohammad Ali is with the MEI Program in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and teaches courses on South Asia and human security in the Advanced Academic Programs at Johns Hopkins University.
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