Coveting glory is a natural trait among humans. However, seeking glory where not due is a common weakness of political leaders, of whatever stripes and persuasions. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, who launched himself into politics on the slogan of being a maverick politician of a special breed and pedigree, is no exception to this syndrome, notwithstanding his claims to the contrary. In fact, Imran has lately been focusing more and more on Pakistan’s external relations, far removed from the domestic front where his avowed ‘crusade’ against his sordidly corrupt political rivals is making heavy weather. In addition, managing a bankrupt economy is rapidly becoming a millstone around his neck and triggering an avalanche of negative ratings of his job as a self-proclaimed ‘leader of change’.
Understandably, therefore, his forays into foreign relations are becoming all too frequent, where the prospects of his making waves are brighter and rosier, compared to his dismal track record in economic (mis)management. Ergo, not surprisingly at all, the recent spat between Iran and the US—with its genesis in the targeted killing of an Iranian icon, Gen. Qasem Soleimani of the elite Quds Force—has been seized by Imran as a promising field to hunt for kudos.
On cue from his boss, Foreign Minister Mehmood Qureshi has embarked on a peacemaking safari, ostensibly to narrow down the differences between the parties to the conflict and render bridge-building services. After wrapping up talks in Tehran with the Iranian leaders, he went to Riyadh to confab with the Saudi royals.
Saudi Arabia isn’t, up front, a party to the recent happenings. However, its status of the most trusted Gulf Arab ally of the US, and its traditional rivalry with Iran for regional hegemony, qualifies it, in Pakistan’s eyes, as the silent party to the conflict and, thus, necessarily co-opted in the peacemaking drill. Interestingly, Pakistan hasn’t been asked by any one of the three parties to play the peacemaker’s role. However, Imran feels that Pakistan has vital stakes in the region that qualify it to act as a fire marshal and put out the flames of war before they become like Australia’s bushfires—beyond control. Pakistan is a neighbour of Iran, has fraternal bonds with Saudi Arabia and has gone repeatedly on record committing itself, pompously, to safeguard the kingdom’s territorial integrity at all cost. Pakistan also happens to be the oldest ally of Washington in the region. After Riyadh, the next stop for Qureshi was Washington.
All of these geopolitical underpinnings of Qureshi donning the peacemaker’s mantle may be genuine. However, Pakistan’s credentials of an ‘honest broker,’ a quintessential requirement for peacemaking, are dubious and not above board—at least not in the eyes of Tehran. Iran doesn’t have to go too far back in history to uncover Pakistan’s very special ties with Saudi Arabia. As recently as last month, Imran didn’t show up at the Kuala Lumpur Summit, where President Hasan Rouhani of Iran was conspicuous with his presence. Imran was one of the three main proponents of the conclave—besides Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohammad and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan—but turned his back on it because his Saudi mentors, who have invested billions of dollars in bailing Pakistan out of its economic bind, twisted his arm and made him succumb to their diktat.
The episode caused huge embarrassment to Imran, personally, and exposed Pakistan’s pathetic status of a votary of Saudi interests with regard to the so-called Muslim ummah. The Saudis smelled in the KL Summit a ploy to challenge and subvert their monopoly of power over the ummah and used Pakistan to scuttle the initiative. Imran’s apologists justified his role of a Saudi tribune to realpolitik; critics decried it as ‘Riyal politics’.
The Iranians have another cogent reason to suspect Pakistan’s avowed ‘honest broker’ credentials. To date, Imran’s government hasn’t had the decency to condole with the Iranians over the gruesome murder of their national hero, Soleimani. It’s a basic Islamic trait to commiserate the death of a fellow Muslim. But Imran’s Islamic Republic ignored that Islamic norm, to the abiding shame of millions of Pakistanis.
Imran’s maverick conduct could only be justified by his concern to not negate Washington’s branding of Soleimani as an arch ‘terrorist’ with plenty of blood on his hands. Trump brazenly boasted of ‘taking out’ a master terrorist who, in his words, should’ve been eliminated long ago.
Tehran couldn’t have also ignored that American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo phoned not PM Imran but Pakistan’s military czar General Bajwa, within hours of Soleimani’s callous murder. Islamabad was then prompted to call for restraint on all sides; a weird logic that put the aggressor and the aggrieved on the same pedestal. A day later, Washington further sweetened the pot for Islamabad with its gratuitous restoration of training programme in the US for Pakistan’s military officers, after years of shutting them out and keeping the facility frozen.All these tea leaves in the cup together paint a distorted picture of Pakistan in the eyes of the Iranians and render it a suspect peace broker. Imran could be chasing a chimera.