MOSCOW - While much has been made of a “reset” in the relationship between the United States and Russia, Pakistan is also trying to find a new starting point in its relationship with Russia, which has yet to recover from Pakistan’s cold-war alliance with the United States.
This would-be reset has had both setbacks and steps forward in recent days, but Russia’s historical alliance with India, Pakistan’s main geopolitical enemy, threatens to overshadow attempts by the two countries to work together in the Central Asian region.
It should first be noted that no Russian leader has visited Pakistan in the past 44 years. The government in Islamabad thought that chill was going to end late last month when President Vladimir Putin was expected to arrive for a summit with Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. But at the last minute the summit was cancelled after Putin informed Islamabad that he would not be able to make the meeting.
Putin’s office said that it was due to scheduling conflicts, but the refusal stung, and provoked an outcry in the Pakistani media.
Later that same week, the head of Pakistan’s armed forces, Ashfk Pervez Kayani, arrived in Moscow on a four-day visit. This might have been a sign that Russia is finally willing to work with Pakistan, clearly an important player in Central Asia, a region that includes several formerly Soviet countries which Russia considers part of its sphere of influence.
Pakistan has been trying to establish a military technology partnership with Russia for years, and hopes that Kayani’s trip will bring them closer to an agreement.
Weapons and strategic alliances
The experts say there are two main clouds hanging over Russia-Pakistan relations. One of them is the lack of agreement on whether Gazprom, the Russian state-owned gas giant, will participate in the construction of a major pipeline from Iran to India via Pakistan. Gazprom was apparently unhappy that the Pakistanis insisted companies be chosen through a bidding process.
The biggest challenge for the two countries’ reset, however, is Russia’s relationship with India. That alliance dates from the cold war, and Delhi’s stance has always been that its allies should not sell a single bullet to Pakistan.
Now, experts say, Russia is reevaluating that approach. “India will continue to be Moscow’s most important partner in the military technology arena, both in volume and in potential," explained Ruslan Pukhov, the director of the Center of Strategic Analysis in Moscow. "But Russia was really unhappy about Delhi’s attempt to diversify its sources for new weapons, which India is increasingly buying from Western countries."
Pukhov says that Moscow is communicating to Delhi that Russia too can diversify its military technology connections, by a warmer relationship with Pakistan.
The situation in Afghanistan is one of the reasons Russia is more interested in working with Pakistan. “Pakistan influences the situation in Afghanistan to an enormous degree. Moscow is already racking its brains trying to figure out how to provide for its own security and the security of borders in the south of the former Soviet zone after NATO and the U.S. leave Afghanistan," Pukhov said. "If Russia continues to turn away from Pakistan because of its relationship with India, it will be working against its own security interests.”
Nonetheless, Russia’s relationship with India, although it would not prevent all military trade with Pakistan, will certainly limit the scope of weapons sales.
The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.
LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.
Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.
Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.
The role of the nuclear pact
Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.
It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.
He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."
The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.
Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020commons.wikimedia.org
Riyadh's warming relations with Israel
Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."
The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."
Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."
Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.
If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.
Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.
Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.
For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.
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