After last month’s attack on Aramco's oil-producing facility, Pakistan is under pressure from Saudi Arabia and the United States to cut off ties with Iran, which is accused of orchestrating the attack.
Saudi government-run Aramco is the world’s second largest oil producer. Its two facilities were attacked on September 14 by drones, bringing down their oil production by 58 percent. Though Yemen-based Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for the attack, Saudi Arabia and the US believe Iran is the real culprit.
Pakistan government officials say a strong retaliation plan is brewing in Washington and Riyadh following the attack and the two countries are increasing pressure on Islamabad regarding its bilateral relations with Tehran.
Officials in Riyadh not only interpreted the drone strikes as an Iranian attack on Saudi Arabia, they also believe it was an attempt by Tehran to target Saudi economic hub. The Aramco oil facilities produce 9.8 million barrels of oil a day, amounting to 6 percent of global and almost half of Saudi oil.
The Saudi Defence Ministry’s immediate response to the attack was to talk up Iranian connivance in the drone strikes. The Saudi military spokesman Col Turki Al Malki said during a press conference on September 18 that the attack was unquestionably sponsored by Iran.
Call for retaliation
Saudi officials have since been rallying for global retaliation against Iran. Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump tweeted in the aftermath of the attack that the US was “locked and loaded” for a retaliatory strike on Iran. The US president has since ordered deployment of more troops in Saudi Arabia to boost Riyadh’s defence.
Tensions between the US and Tehran have been on the rise since the Trump regime’s abandonment of the nuclear deal with Iran. With Iran reiterating over the past week that it is “ready to destroy” any country that attacks its territory, Tehran’s growing hostility with Washington and Riyadh has put Islamabad in a tough spot.
“Saudi Arabia has been asking us [to] publically denounce Iran as a hub of terrorism for a while. And now the US wants us to follow its instructions in Afghanistan and Iran as well,” revealed a senior Pakistani diplomat.
Since coming to power after last year’s elections, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has been repeatedly asked to openly align his country against Iran and with the Saudi camp.
In August 2018, just days after Khan had taken oath as the prime minister, Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa had met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman at Mina, where he was told that Riyadh expects Islamabad to openly back the Saudi-led Islamic Military Counter-Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC), which many interpret as an anti-Iran alliance.
The understanding came after the Saudi Crown Prince and the Pakistan army chief had already agreed on Islamabad sending more troops to Saudi Arabia following a rise in cross-border attacks by Houthi rebels in February 2018.
There was talk of an increased role for Pakistan in the IMCTC during Mohammad Bin Salman’s visit to Islamabad this February. During the visit, Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel Bin Ahmed Al Jubeir dubbed Iran world’s chief sponsor of terrorism in a joint press conference with his Pakistani counterpart Shah Mehmood Qureshi.
With Saudi Arabia taking its case against Iran to the global stage, with full support from the US, Pakistan is expected to, at the very least, acquiesce to Riyadh’s position. This comes at a time when, PM Imran Khan himself is looking for global support vis-à-vis Islamabad’s position on Kashmir, amid what Pakistan interprets is New Delhi’s “undemocratic annexation” of Kashmir last month.
However, analysts note that Pakistan’s economic crisis means that there is little that Islamabad can do against the will of Saudi Arabia and the US, both of whom want isolation of Iran.
“The IMF bailout programme was designed to shackle Pakistan politically, so that Islamabad fulfills the regional wishes of the US. The Fund has long been an institute that pushes American geopolitical interests more so than any actual economic reforms,” notes senior economist and Pakistan government’s former spokesperson on energy and economy, Farrukh Saleem.
In July, the International Monetary Fund approved a $6 billion bailout package for Pakistan. During his visit in February, Mohammad Bin Salman gave a $20 billion economic package in investments for Islamabad, in addition to the $6 billion Riyadh had approved in October 2018, during Imran Khan’s visit to Saudi Arabia. Khan attended an investment conference in Riyadh at the time amidst Mohammad Bin Salman being engulfed in a crisis following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Pakistan’s relations with Iran have long been impacted by Saudi and American pressure. The long stalled Iran-Pakistan pipeline is emblematic of how Washington and Riyadh has pushed Islamabad to pull out of collaborations with Tehran.
On September 23, the Inter State Gas Systems Limited and the National Iranian Gas Company signed another extension for the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project which was scheduled for completion in 2013.
Former Pakistan Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri says despite US and Saudi pressure, Islamabad shouldn’t alienate Iran.
“When I was the foreign minister, the pressure to sideline Iran was there at the time as well. But we always found room to ensure a balance between Saudi Arabia and Iran through proactive diplomacy. Pakistan should never take sides on sectarian grounds and play a part in the reconciliation and unity of the Muslim world,” he said.
Meanwhile, senior minister of the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) government, Fawad Chaudhry, believes that the country should only focus on its national interests.
“Instead of worrying about Arabs and Iran, Pakistan only needs to focus on its own interests. Pakistan’s interests should be more important than [any notion of the Muslim] Ummah,” he said.
KK Shahid is an Islamabad-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com - a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.