Saudi-Iran accord; let’s cross our fingers (Part 2)



Ansar M Bhatti

It may be a far-fetched approach yet Iran-Saudi easing of tensions may not augur well for the future investments which the Saudis had planned for Pakistan. The biggest upcoming project of oil refinery in Gwadar to be established at a cost of USD 10 billion may also land in trouble because Saudis may now look for similar opportunities in Iran as well. Pakistan seems firm in its assumption that Saudi Arabia shall continue its engagement with Pakistan without any strings attached and the oil refinery project shall proceed as planned. But in the emerging scenario it seems as if Pakistan had to earn Saudi support in future. It may not be automatic and spontaneous as is the case at the moment. China too may shift its focus from Pakistan to especially Iran given the fact that the CPEC project fate still hangs in a balance and scores of Chinese have been killed so far in Balochistan and elsewhere.

Iran always tried to have good relations with Pakistan because of two main reasons. First it wanted to curtail Saudi influence and secondly it needed new markets to sell its natural resources. Being a neighbor, Pakistan turned out to be a viable option. But unfortunately Pakistan could not respond to Iranian gestures because of its being under American influence and partly because of US sanctions on Tehran.

In 2013 a 300-member strong Pakistani delegation led by the then President Asif Ali Zardari and comprising the country’s foreign minister, petroleum minister and National Assembly speaker and a number of prominent politicians attended the historic inauguration of the multi-billion dollar Pak-Iran gas pipeline in Chabahar. The then Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad along with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari inaugurated the project. Even after the inauguration doubts continued to rule supreme that at least from the point of view of the Pakistani side the entire exercise was just an eye wash. Since the general elections were around the corner therefore the then government tried to use this event for political purposes.

The successive governments too did not do much about this gas pipeline mainly because of the US and Saudi pressures. Or perhaps that was the impression the Iranian used to give. Recently, Tehran has warned Islamabad to construct its portion of the gas pipeline until March 2024 or pay a penalty of $18 billion.

According to the official, Iran has stated that the US sanctions on Tehran are illegal and Pakistan is bound to construct the 780-kilometer pipeline on its portion till February-March 2024. Iran has already completed part of the pipeline in its territory from the gas fields in the west to the border with Pakistan in the east.

The 25-year contract to export Iran’s natural gas through a pipeline to Pakistan was signed between the two countries in 2009 and was supposed to be implemented by 2015. The two sides inked a revised deal in September 2019. Iran agreed not to approach any international court if Pakistan would finish the pipeline until 2024.

If the Iran-Saudi détente goes well then certainly it will help Pakistan to complete the pipeline project sooner rather than later. If Saudi Arabia throws its weight behind this project then I am sure the American pressure won’t be an obstacle.

The development has rung alarm bells in the important capitals such as Washington and Tel Aviv. The Israeli government has already started feeling the heat as the opposition has pointed all its guns towards the prime minister and the entire government. The opposition thinks Iran-Saudi rapprochement has badly exposed foreign policy flaws. In Washington too the atmosphere is somber. It may not be a matter of concern for the US that both Iran and Saudi Arabia have re-established diplomatic relations, for them the most worrying factor turns out to be the Chinese role in the whole exercise. This development is indeed a big foreign policy success for Beijing, which had huge economic stakes in the Gulf region and thus wanted peace and stability there.

While we may not draw a parallel between Iran-Saudi relations and Pakistan India ties, however this development appears to have opened a window of hope for both Islamabad and New Delhi to give peace another chance. We cannot expect China to play a role in this regard because Chinese tensions with India are of much more magnitude than that of Pakistan and India’s. To play a role China at the first place had to mend its fences with India, which seems impossible at least in the foreseeable future. It means the initiative has to come from within. Both India and Pakistan enjoy cordial ties with Saudi Arabia and Iran therefore it is possible that these two countries can play a role in diffusing mistrust between the two arch rivals. To begin with, re-appointment of the high commissioners may be a positive step in that direction.

Regarding the agreement, the path to peace for Iranian and Saudis will not be easy since there are many spoilers who would be seeking to torpedo the deal. Now it is up to both sides as to how they make this agreement work.