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Pakistan’s improving relations with Iran amid Pakistan’s urge for national & energy security

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Besides its suffocation from the ongoing internal insurgencies in Waziristan, Baluchistan and other areas, Pakistan is also suffocating in terms of its foreign relations. Pakistan is already facing an unpleasant situation regarding Saudi-Iran rivalry.

Saudi Arabia, along with its fellow Arab-Sunni states, is using its sunni brand in order to rally the sunnis around the world behind its back against its rival Iran. On the other side, Iran is playing the same game by using the card of shia-ism in pulling the shias around the world towards its cause of portraying Saudi Arabia an evil power. While Pakistan is traditionally allied with Saudi Arabia, its need for national security and energy security has been pushing Pakistan into changing its foreign policy by moving away from ‘all-out influence’ of Saudi Arabia and taking a more lenient approach with regard to Iran. In other words, Pakistan has been attempting to draw a balance between its relations with Saudi Arabia and its relations with Iran.

Traditional Pakistan-Saudi relations

Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are decades old friends. Saudi Arabia was at Pakistan’s side whenever Pakistan needed a warm friend. Saudi Arabia stood beside Pakistan in Pakistan’s effort to counter its arch rival India’s major moves, including Pakistan’s nuclear race against India. Saudi Arabia has been literally showering ‘economically weak Pakistan’ with billions of dollars in financial aid.

A protocol was signed between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in 1982 following Saudi Arabia’s request for military manpower assistance. Pakistani military presence in Saudi Arabia continues till the day, providing Saudi Arabia support against internal and external regional threats. Naeem Khan, Pakistan’s former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, stated that Pakistan considers Saudi Arabia’s security as a “personal matter”.

Saudi Arabia needs Pakistan by its side in order to geopolitically counter Iran for three reasons: (i) Pakistan is a nuclear-armed state; (ii) Pakistan is a strong and big-in-size military power; and, (iii) Pakistan, with a Sunni majority population, is Shia majority Iran’s next door neighbour. On the other hand, Pakistan needs Saudi Arabia by its side for several reasons, but the most important ones are: (i) Saudi Arabia showers Pakistan with economic aid (funds, resources, etc), and (ii) Saudi Arabia provides aid for a large portion of Pakistan’s military spending.

Traditional Pakistan-Iran relations

Pakistan and Iran could not maintain a good relationship between themselves after 1979, when the accession of the Shia-clerics into the driving-power of Iran made the surrounding Sunni neighbours provoked against the newly formed Iranian regime. Pakistan and the Arabian-Gulf Sunni states’ relations with Iran deteriorated drastically. During the last few years of cold-war period, Iran was more inclined to the Soviet Union, whereas Pakistan and the Gulf states were actively helping the West (led by the U.S.) to curtail Soviet influence in the Central Asia, especially in Afghanistan. From that period on, the successive Pakistani regimes and the Iranian regimes mostly maintained distance between themselves. Pakistan’s increasing alignment with Saudi Arabia made the Pakistan-Iran relations worse. For decades, Saudi Arabia has been providing Pakistan with military funding and economic aid in return for nuclear-armed Pakistan’s assurance of staying aligned with Saudi Arabia and also in order to help Saudi Arabia militarily whenever it requires.

Iran’s position after the Iran Nuclear Deal

Iran is a country having land access to multiple regions and access to multiple water ways. Borders with South Asia, Central Asia, the Arab region and Europe, and coastlines with the Caspian Sea, Persian Gulf, Gulf of Oman and Indian Ocean make Iran an ideal location for commercial and geostrategic purposes. Iran, despite having these advantages, had been suffering economically because of the sanctions imposed on it by the international community for decades. These sanctions on Iran have helped the Arabian-Gulf Sunni states, especially Saudi Arabia, to remain as the major oil exporter in the world without any annoyance.

However, it seems that the developing incidents in this regard are tempting the equation of the region to change altogether. The Iran nuclear Deal was signed, and started to be implemented, by and between Iran and five permanent members of the UN Security Council along with Germany on the most talked-about geopolitically important Iranian nuclear programme. Under this deal, international economic sanctions against Iran have already started to be lifted one by one. The lifting of the international sanctions means that Iran’s economy would be, in a matter of years, competing shoulder to shoulder with that of Saudi Arabia, which is Iran’s major rival in all aspects. With a booming economy, Iran would want not only to strengthen its military might, but also to increase its political influence over the region and the globe, especially over the Muslim world.

Pakistan’s improving relations with Iran

Through Chinese led Silk Route Economic Belt (One Belt One Route) initiative, Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Asian Infrastructural Investment Bank and other mechanisms, Pakistan and Iran along with China, India and Russia have been actively trying to establish a political, security and economic system for cooperation in order to avoid all sorts of probable conflicts among these countries, most of which have, or previously had, volatile relations with one another.

Both Iran and Pakistan know well that China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is part of China’s initiative to revive the ancient Silk Route, has the potential to transform the economies of Pakistan and, if accommodated, of Iran, India and Afghanistan. CPEC is most likely to bring peace and prosperity not only in Pakistan’s conflict-torn Baluchistan, but also in the Pakistan’s neighbourhood – South Asia and Central Asia.

Pakistan is now concentrating on neutralizing all the insurgencies inside its territory and on shaping up a business friendly Pakistan. Pakistan’s economy is likely to become huge because of the Silk Route Economic Belt initiative led by China. Pakistan will soon, therefore, need huge supply of fuel-energy in order to fuel its economy; and Iran, after withdrawal of economic sanctions, is now able to supply the energy that Pakistan requires. From Pakistan’s recent moves, it seems that Pakistan is too keen to import oil and gas from Iran in order to enjoy easily accessible energy-supply-destination as Iran is Pakistan’s next door neighbour. That is why, Pakistan seems to be moving away from the traditional ‘all-out influence’ of its decades old ally Saudi Arabia and trying to balance between relations with Saudi Arabia and relations with Iran.

Pakistan is already facing an unpleasant situation regarding Saudi-Iran rivalry, particularly in respect to Saudi led coalition’s war on Yemen’s Houthi militants. Saudi Arabia asked Pakistan for supporting the coalitions’ war through sending ground-troops to fight the Houthis in Yemen. Pakistan responded by asking Saudi Arabia to excuse it for not involving in the Yemeni war. But Pakistan assured Saudi Arabia that it would do anything and everything possible to counter any “direct” threat to Saudi Arabia’s sovereignty. In short, Pakistan denied Saudi Arabia’s request to send its own troops to fight a war side by side with Saudi Arabia, disregarding Saudi Arabia’s heavy investments in Pakistan and Saudi’s backing of Pakistan for decades in its dispute with India.

Observations

Pakistan knows very well that sending troops to Yemen would invite Iranian attempts to destabilise Pakistan internally as Iran may take advantage of the facts that (i) more than 20 percent of Pakistan’s total population are shia and (ii) Iran is Pakistan’s next door neighbour. And India, Pakistan’s arch rival, would not fall short of using such a destabilized situation to its advantage — Pakistan is aware of this too. Moreover, an army (Pakistan army) that is already waging an internal war against the militants inside its territory cannot afford to lend its troops to fight a foreign war.

Pakistan is substantially moving away from the West bloc to the East & South bloc.

While Pakistan previously had good relations with the U.S., Saudi Arabia and China, it had awful relations with Russia, former Soviet Union, India and Iran. However, shifts in its balance of foreign relations have been taking place. Pakistan seems to be moving away from the U.S. and Saudi Arabia in its attempt to coming closer to China and Iran. Even Russia’s relation with Pakistan is improving gradually. Whether good or bad, this shifts in foreign relations put Pakistan into image crisis in two ways. First, it shows that Pakistan never remains a friend (or foe) forever. Secondly, such shifts in foreign relations show that Pakistan lacks the capacity and capability to shape and design a single foreign policy for itself. Every changing government in Pakistan, civilian or not, engages with a foreign policy which is different from that of its predecessor.

Bahauddin Foizee is an international affairs analyst and columnist, and regularly writes on greater Asia-Pacific, Indian Oceanic region and greater Middle East geopolitics. He also - infrequently - writes on environment & climate change and the global refugee crisis. Besides Modern Diplomacy, his articles have appeared at The Diplomat, Global New Light of Myanmar, Asia Times, Eurasia Review, Middle East Monitor, International Policy Digest and a number of other international publications. His columns also appear in the Dhaka-based national newspapers, including Daily Observer, Daily Sun, Daily Star, The Independent, The New Nation, Financial Express, New age and bdnews24com. He previously taught law at Dhaka Centre for Law & Economics and worked at Bangladesh Institute of Legal Development.

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South Asia

Taliban and the crisis in Afghanistan

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Source: Twitter

In 2021, the Afghan Taliban took back control of Afghanistan after fighting a rebellion for twenty years. The Taliban reformed and began regaining territory less than 10 years after the American-led invasion that overthrew the previous regime in 2001. In line with a 2020 peace agreement with the Taliban, they staged a swift assault as the US started to evacuate its last forces from Afghanistan.

Even though they promised to preserve the rights of women and communities of religious and racial minorities, the Taliban have enforced a strict interpretation of Islamic law. The Taliban have failed to provide Afghans with sufficient food supplies and economic possibilities as they have evolved from an insurgent organization to a functioning administration.

Numerous instances of human rights violations have been documented by the UN mission in Afghanistan. Because the Taliban scared off journalists and put limits on press freedom, more than 200 news outlets had to close. Activists and protesters have been tracked and forcefully disappeared, and their government has ruthlessly suppressed protests. They also reinstated the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which was previously in place, and enforced laws against actions judged to be contrary to Islam. They instructed judges to apply their version of sharia in November 2022; in the following weeks, authorities resumed public hangings and floggings.

Women’s rights have been undermined. Due to restrictions put in place by the Taliban, girls are not allowed to go to high school, and women are not allowed to go to college or teach there. The group banned women from working for local and international voluntary groups in December 2022. According to estimates from the UN Development Program (UNDP), limiting women’s employment might cost Afghanistan’s GDP up to 5%. Amnesty International reports a substantial increase in the number of women jailed for defying discriminatory rules, such as those requiring women to cover their whole bodies while in public and to only appear with male chaperones. In addition, there are now more child marriages.

The UNDP says that the Taliban’s rule has also taken away the gains that Afghans made in their living conditions in the 20 years after the US invasion. In a study from October 2022, the organization claimed that practically all Afghans were living in poverty. Since the takeover, the economy has contracted by up to 30%, and there have been an estimated 700,000 job losses. More than 90% of individuals are impacted by food insecurity. The problem is getting worse because several countries and international groups have stopped giving aid, which is vital to the economy and public health.

International observers are nonetheless worried that the Taliban pose a danger to national and international security through their funding of terrorist groups, especially Al-Qaeda. Taliban leadership might convert Afghanistan into a haven for terrorists who could launch attacks against the US and its allies, despite Taliban pledges that the country’s territory wouldn’t be used against the security of any other country. The violence has also increased along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, which has always supported the Taliban. Tehrik-e-Taliban, a terrorist organization commonly referred to as the Pakistani Taliban, has gained strength due to the Taliban’s ascent to power. The organization broke off a cease-fire with the Pakistani government in 2022 and began carrying out assaults throughout the nation. Officials from Pakistan have charged the Afghan Taliban with giving the extremists a safe harbor in their country.

For many years, the Afghan government relied on help from a number of countries; according to 2019 World Bank research, contributions from foreign partners funded 75% of the government’s public expenditures. Many of these countries stopped off aid when the Taliban took control, fueling concerns about potential future economic turmoil. Nevertheless, aid rose in 2022 as donors sent more than $2.6 billion. The US has donated more than $1.1 billion in help since the coup. However, according to UN authorities, the pledges fell short of the nation’s humanitarian requirements.

Many Western countries, most notably the US, shut down their diplomatic posts in Afghanistan when the Taliban took power. Diplomatic relations and recognition have been withheld from the Taliban regime, which refers to Afghanistan as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The UN General Assembly has also postponed a decision on who would indefinitely represent Afghanistan at the UN. The Taliban are now being investigated by the International Criminal Court for suspected atrocities, including crimes against humanity, committed against Afghans.

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South Asia

Decoding Donald Lu’s Visit: A Positive Upward in US-Bangladesh Relations?

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The U.S Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia Donald Lu paid a visit from January 12 to 15. During his brief but swarming itinerary the two parties discussed various issues ranging from diplomatic to political. Interestingly, this is the 11th visit of any U.S high-official in the past two years. The frequent swapping of delegations from the both sides pose a critical juncture between the U.S-Bangladesh relationship. Experts believe that recurrent visits from US high-ups are definitely an auspicious sign between the relationship of the two nations. Therefore, the visit of Donald Lu is an offshoot of the “growing reciprocity and renewed engagement” between Dhaka and Washington.

Needless to say, Bangladesh has a long standing and steady relationship with the US since the latter recognized the former shortly after independence on April 04, 1972. Recently the US-Bangladesh celebrated the completion of 50 years of bilateral relationship and US President Joe Biden termed this as “robust partnership”. Amid such backdrop, it goes without saying that the recent visits signal to a significant positive tie-up between the two parties and the visit can be interpreted in the context of international and domestic backdrop of international politics.

The US is the largest market for Bangladesh’s RMG export. Naturally, the issue of GSP reinstatement plays a key role in bilateral camaraderie. Under such circumstances, Lu’s visit is important to hold talks of economic in the context of Bangladesh’s growing needs, especially after the LDC graduation. Moreover, in the annual Global Firepower 2023 Military Strength Ranking, Bangladesh is placed 40th out of 145 nations. On the other hand, Bangladesh came in 12th place on the GFP review’s list of ‘Strengths on the Rise,’ which emphasizes national military powers based on strong growth patterns until 2023. In this context, the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) and Acquisition and Cross-servicing Agreement (ACSA) agreement indicates to a deeper and strategic engagement from the US rationale.

Bangladesh’s stands at the heart of a strategic position of the US’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, which aims to counter the increasing footprint of China in the Indo-Pacific region. However, Bangladesh maintains a neutral position in terms of its foreign relations and has been carefully helming without taking any side of any major powers. Washington’s focus on free and fair election is important to maintain a stability in the greater Bay of Bengal neighborhood- an important feat in it’s IPS. Conversely, Bangladesh values economic partnership to sustain her ongoing upward trend. However, at the same time Bangladesh should be careful not to succumb to any pressure, a case in point when the Foreign Minister announced that the US proposed strategy is being vetted under the lens of economic opportunity.

On the domestic fore, arguably, the U.S has been advocating for a free and fair election, upholding democratic values, and condemning extra judicial excesses. However, continuous engagement between the two parties resulted helping to mitigate tensions and create a more positive atmosphere. The crux of Donald Lu’s visit is to reaffirm democratic ideals in state mechanism, rule based international system and Bangladesh to be part of the Indo-Pacific Strategy. Accordingly, Bangladesh has committed to hold a fair election and the recent decline of the controversial RAB’s extrajudicial excesses reported by Human Rights Watch as well as peaceful demonstrations of the opposition have been markedly praised by Donald Lu. From Bangladesh’s perspective rescinding of sanctions, reinstatement of GSP, and more support for Rohingya Refugees were reiterated. More importantly, Dhaka’s impartial foreign policy goals align with Washington’s interest in the South Asian region and it will be of American interest to consider Bangladesh as an important ally in the geopolitical chessboard of the Indo-Pacific region.  

However, the visit is also crucial for Donald Lu who is accused of meddling with the internal affairs of Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal. But, Donald Lu manifested his diplomatic acumen to “manage the fissures of the diplomatic ties’ and “highlight on the areas of convergence” in the recent visit. Evidently, the past year has been tumultuous for South Asian nations, following the collapse of Colombo, the Pakistani Economic Crisis and the revolving debt crisis around the region. Amongst her neighbors, Bangladesh has endured relatively steady political and economic pursuit. Therefore, US needs to formulate a comprehensive South Asian policy to accommodate the interests of the respective nations on its own merit.

Bangladesh’s relationship with the U.S is vital in both economic and political stance. Continued engagement and partnership between the two states is critical for the security of South Asia as well as Bangladesh’s ongoing economic prosperity. On a pragmatic tone, it would take more than just this one visit for Bangladesh to solve these complex geopolitical issues. For now, the visit has symbolized strengthening of U.S-Bangladesh relationship going forward by exonerating the mutual interests to diplomatically resolve pressing bilateral issues and elevation of continuous engagement.

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South Asia

Praiseworthy Development of RAB in the Last Year

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Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) image source: benarnews.org

On December 10th 2021, the United States of America (USA) announced sanctions against Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and its seven current and former officials on allegations of Human Rights violation. Such unilateral decisions of the US on the elite force surprised many. But Bangladesh chose to respond maturely through diplomatic communication. Since then, Bangladesh increased diplomatic engagement with the US, a method lauded by many as ‘prudent’ also.

Since the sanction, Bangladesh enhanced its effort to uphold the Human Rights situation in Bangladesh. RAB as an elite force also acknowledged the sanction and behaved in a more professional way. And it seems after one year, there are significant developments regarding both RAB and government policy. Foreign dignitaries and organizations are also lauding these developments.

Efforts from Bangladesh

After the announcement of the sanctions, Bangladesh immediately contacted the US diplomatic institutions to understand and assess the situation. As a part of the efforts, Bangladesh established Human Rights Cell in the Foreign Ministry under its United Nations wing.

Bangladesh also increased its diplomatic communications with the US, not necessarily because of the sanctions, but also due to growing geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific region, and commitment to deepen bilateral relations with the US. In the last two years, both countries undertook 18 bilateral visits of mid and high-level. Bangladesh sent 7 delegations to the US while the US sent 11 delegations including Donald Lu’s latest.

Both countries also hold the bilateral Partnership Dialogue and Security Dialogue in March and April of 2022. In the same year, they also celebrated 50 years of their anniversary. Bangladesh’s foreign minister also met his counterpart in April 2022.

While many rogue states such as North Korea, react to the US sanctions by projecting hard power or test-launching missile, Bangladesh resorted to diplomatic means to raise and provide an update about the agenda to its counterpart. Almost in all diplomatic meetings, Bangladesh raised its concern about the sanction. Bangladesh even gave a ‘non-paper’ dossier to Under-Secretary Victoria Nuland, when Nuland came to Bangladesh in March 2022.

Significant Developments

Since the US sanctions on 10th December 2021, the allegations of extrajudicial killings have gone down in Bangladesh. It has reached zero after one year. There were no new allegations of extrajudicial killing by RAB for the last 13 months. RAB’s name was not also mentioned in any other allegations or negative deeds. Therefore, RAB is maintaining a ‘clean record’ at least for last 13 months or so.

Apart from that, the Human Rights situation also improved in Bangladesh in the meantime as the government gave extra effort to project the situation to the international community. During Under Secretary Nuland’s visit in March, she also acknowledged that the situation has improved.

The US Assistant Secretary Donald Lu also acknowledged the further development regarding the allegations against RAB. Secretary Lu visited Bangladesh on January 14th and 15th. He also acknowledged the falling extrajudicial killing in Bangladesh. He also said that there was ‘tremendous progress’ in reducing extrajudicial killings after the US sanctions.

Home Minister Asaduzzaman Kamal also told the media that the US delegation is satisfied with RAB’s current activities. In another expert talk with The Business Standard, the Home Minister further said that the US also praised the actions of Bangladesh in combating militancy, terrorism, arson, and radicalism.

Apart from the US, global watchdogs are also acknowledging the fact. Human Rights Watch World Human Rights Report 2023 mentioned that there is a ‘drop-in abuse’ in Bangladesh (See Page 68).

Such transformation in the US perspective within only 13 months regarding a sanction is very unique considering the history of sanctions. Bangladesh’s diplomatic efforts and commitment to upholding Human Rights deserve praise in this regard. Till now Bangladesh is dealing with the issue prudently.

Lifting the sanctions in a diplomatic manner will require making it a national security interest for the USA. An elite force with a ‘clean record’ and its die-hard effort in curbing terrorism and militancy, fighting drug and human trafficking, and anti-piracy drive can easily draw US national security interest in this region. And RAB has the ability to become so. Considering the historic relations between the US and Bangladesh, the Sanctions are the only ‘strain’ in this bilateral relationship. Lastly, as there are praiseworthy developments, both countries are likely to pass beyond this issue in the near future if Bangladesh continues to maintain the positive trend.

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