Bridge too far for greenhorn Imran Khan

Imran had landed on the centre stage of Pakistani politics as a Mr Fixit.

Published: 26th October 2019 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 26th October 2019 11:55 AM   |  A+A-

Express Illustration by Amit Bandre.

Imran had landed on the centre stage of Pakistani politics as a Mr Fixit. For almost a quarter century, until he became prime minister, Imran campaigned ferociously to hawk his credentials as a troubleshooter to fix a Pakistan going to the dogs and falling apart under its thieving rulers. Now, more than a year in office, his agenda to fix a tottering Pakistan is still struggling to take shape, while discontent against his economic management has started taxing the fidelity and patience of his supporters.

But while his home-renovation initiative may be hitting rough shoals, he’s making waves in foreign policy where his detractors initially thought of him to be a novice. In his latest foray into international diplomacy, Imran has donned the mantle of a peacemaker and mediator (for the record, he’s putting the label of ‘facilitator’ on his role) between two of Pakistan’s most important Muslim ‘brothers’, i.e. Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Imran dashed to Tehran, in early October, within days of coming back home from his stint at the UN General Assembly in New York, where he also parlayed with US President Donald Trump on the sidelines of the UNGA. Pakistani media had gone to town with comments that Trump had asked Imran to help bridge his yawning divide with the Iranian leadership. 

The same sources had earlier reported that Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler and heir apparent, had requested Imran to intercede with Tehran to repair the torn fences between the two traditional rivals in the Gulf. To lend credence to that narrative, Imran hopped over to Riyadh within days of his trip to Tehran to exchange notes with MBS on his diplomatic offensive as an emissary of peace. The ongoing Saudi offensive against a dirt-poor Yemen—now in its fifth year—is the most obvious cause of the Saudi-Iranian divide. The Saudis are into Yemen because they accuse the pesky Houthis—their Yemeni nemeses—to be Iranian proxies.

But the differences between the two are more deep-seated than the Yemeni imbroglio. The two regional rivals have been at loggerheads, ideologically, ever since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran spawned a new calculus of power in the region. The rise of a Shia political power within its hailing distance was considered an affront by the Wahabbi-led Saudi Arabia. Their centuries-old sectarian schism had suddenly acquired a political dynamic, which was nothing short of an anathema to the Saudis.

Stepping into the void between such ideologically inspired Muslim brothers will be a very sensitive undertaking for even a seasoned mediator or ‘facilitator’, much less someone as green as Imran. It certainly isn’t a fool’s errand—notwithstanding his votaries’ claim that he’s fast learning the rules of the game—for a Pakistani leader, given the fact that sectarian sensitivities within Pakistan’s Muslim faithful have often asserted themselves explosively. Imran can’t be unmindful of the history of Pakistan’s own sectarian divide since the rivalry for one-upmanship between a revolutionary Shia-led Iran and a deeply dogmatic Wahabbi-inspired Saudi Arabia started manifesting itself in Pakistan. For 40-odd years, Pakistan has been a battleground and paid a heavy price in blood in sectarian clashes.

Any Pakistani mediator, Imran included, will have to keep a sharp eye on the blowback of his mediation between such arch ideological rivals on Pakistan’s own incendiary sectarian landscape. Ironically, General Zia-ul-Haq—who has been routinely black-faced in Pakistan’s intellectual narrative for taking the country into the Saudi fold as he was himself inspired by Wahabbi philosophy and creed—was astute enough to steer clear of such mediation. During the eight long years of the nihilistic Iran-Iraq War (1980 to 1988), Zia was repeatedly coaxed and called upon to mediate between an Arab Iraq and a non-Arab Iran but cleverly begged off such a role. 

Imran should know better. The stakes now are much higher than in the Zia era and the potential risks for Pakistan, in terms of spill-over effect on its domestic scene, much greater. Besides, will Iran trust Pakistan’s credentials of being an honest broker, given that the nation is too attached to the Saudi apron-string? It’s not only 2.5 million Pakistanis working in Saudi Arabia, whose remittances are a welcome boon to a cash-strapped Pakistan. In addition, it is deeply beholden and indebted to Saudi Arabia for its largesse—the latest one in billions of dollars to bail out a nation starved of hard currency. There’s no such obligation to Iran and, so, it has little leverage over Pakistan.

Is Imran doing this ‘facilitation’ on his own or on prompting from Trump, MBS or even China? The Chinese have a heavy stake, too, in the region and would welcome any lessening of hostility between two regional Gulf rivals. Imran was closeted in Beijing with Xi Jinping only days before flying into Tehran. Who knows?Whatever the scenario, whatever its backdrop, Imran is casting himself into a role that may demand much more than his limited experience of statesmanship. Is he prepared to pay the price of it?

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