Why Pakistan Isn't Taking Sides After Outbreak of US-Iran Conflict


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Pakistan's bid to mediate a de-escalation of conflict between the U.S. and Iran is driven largely by its concerns about potential domestic fallout from hostilities between its two longtime partners, analysts say.

Islamabad's peace effort, launched this month after the U.S. and Iran traded rare military blows in their decades-old tense relationship, also is rooted in its longstanding neutrality toward regional conflicts involving Iran or Iranian proxies, they say.

"We are not going to repeat our mistakes of getting involved in others' wars. Pakistan will become a country which will make peace among states," said Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan at a public event Jan. 9, a day after Iran carried out a missile strike on an Iraqi base housing U.S. troops.

The Iranian attack, which left dozens of U.S. forces with concussion-related injuries but killed no one, was Tehran's retaliation for what the U.S. called a self-defense strike that killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani at Baghdad airport Jan. 3.

"I have told U.S. President Donald Trump that Pakistan is ready to mediate between Iran and the U.S. to resolve differences between them," Khan said in his public remarks, adding that he also wanted to resolve longstanding tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, a military ally of Washington.

Since then, Khan has dispatched Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi to Tehran, Riyadh and Washington to urge them to exercise restraint and warn them that further hostilities could destabilize the region.

US-Pakistan relations

Pakistan has generally enjoyed a close relationship with the United States for decades, according to the Office of the Historian at the U.S. State Department.

Islamabad has benefited from U.S. economic aid and has been a major purchaser of U.S. military equipment. But the Trump administration suspended security assistance to Pakistan in 2018 to press Pakistani authorities to take more action against what it called "externally focused militant groups and U.N.-designated terrorist organizations operating from its territory."

When it comes to Iran, Pakistan has long expressed a mutual feeling of brotherliness toward its neighboring Muslim majority state. But those relations have been strained in recent decades by Pakistan's close ties with predominantly Sunni Muslim regional states such as Saudi Arabia, its cooperation with the U.S. and its support for Afghanistan's Sunni militant Taliban group - all rivals of predominantly Shiite Iran.

Islamabad has sought to mediate between the U.S. and Iran rather than take sides as it fears an escalation of their conflict could draw in U.S. ally Saudi Arabia and worsen Sunni-Shiite sectarian divisions in Pakistani society, according to political scientist Rasul Bakhsh Rais of Lahore's LUMS University.

A 2018 State Department report said about 80% to 85% of Pakistan's Muslim population is Sunni, while Shiites make up about 15% to 20%.

"One segment of Pakistani society supports (Sunni-majority) Saudi Arabia, while another feels closer to (Shiite-majority) Iran," Rais said in a VOA Urdu interview.

Radicalized supporters

Saudi Arabia and Iran have radicalized their Islamist supporters in Pakistan for years by quietly funding thousands of Sunni and Shiite seminaries in Pakistan, respectively. Some Sunni and Shiite graduates of those seminaries have carried out violent attacks on members of the other sect, fueling Pakistan's long-running sectarian tensions.

Pakistan also opposes letting U.S. forces use its territory for military action against Iran because of concerns about a potential domestic backlash from militants who would be angered by such cooperation, former Pakistani Interior Minister Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Moinuddin Haider told VOA Urdu in another interview.

In recent weeks, Pakistani Foreign Minister Qureshi repeatedly has said his nation will not allow its territory to be used in hostilities between the U.S. and Iran.

Policy of neutrality

In the years after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S., Islamabad allowed U.S. forces to use an airbase in Baluchistan province to conduct drone strikes against Taliban-allied militants along the Pakistani-Afghan border, Wilson Center analyst Michael Kugelman told VOA. He said the Pakistani government ordered an end to such cooperation in 2011 as U.S.-Pakistani tensions intensified, especially following a NATO airstrike that inadvertently killed about two dozen Pakistani soldiers in the region.

Taliban-allied militants retaliated for the Pakistani-assisted U.S. drone strikes by carrying out suicide bombings across Pakistan. Former Pakistani Interior Minister Haider said Islamabad worries that if it helps the U.S. to attack a neighboring country such as Iran, a similar violent backlash would result.

Former Pakistani Foreign Secretary Najmuddin Sheikh told VOA Urdu that Islamabad's push for peace between Iran, the U.S. and U.S. ally Saudi Arabia also reflects a pattern of Pakistani neutrality toward conflicts involving Muslim-majority nations.

Pakistan's then-president Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq publicly expressed a neutral position regarding the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88. More recently, then-Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif first declared neutrality in Yemen's ongoing conflict between a Saudi-led coalition and Iranian-backed Houthi militants in 2015. Sharif's successor, Prime Minister Khan, has continued that approach.

This article originated in VOA's Persian Service. It was produced in collaboration with VOA's Urdu Service and Extremism Watch Desk.