In depth Analysis: Pakistan and its relationship with Iran and Saudi Arabia


Pakistan, Iran,Saudi Relationship

Saudi Arabia and Iran are two key regional players in the Middle East. Pakistan has maintained its relationship with both the countries with a few hot and cold seasons in its 63 years long history.

Let us look at a brief history of both the countries’ relationship with Pakistan.

Iran and Pakistan Past History:

Pakistan and Iran enjoyed a cordial relationship in the 1950s and Iran was the first country to recognize Pakistan. The Shah of Iran was the first foreign Head of State to visit Pakistan. In the 1965 Indo-Pak war, Iran supported Pakistan and supplied qualified nurses, medical supplies and 5000 tons of petroleum products to support Pakistan. When the US suspended military aid to Pakistan, the Shah of Iran purchased 90 sabre fighter jets from Germany and supplied them to Pakistan. Iran even considered oil embargo against India during the course of the war. Pakistan and Iran granted each other MFN status and became close allies. In the 1971 Indo-Pak conflict, Iran again supported Pakistan militarily and, on the diplomatic front, Iran called the Indian attacks an act of aggression.

On the global forums, Iran justified its support to Pakistan. Iran was concerned that Pakistan’s instability will have a spillover effect for Iran. But in the mid 70s, when Pakistan started warming up its relations with China, Iran was concerned once again, this time about its own regional gains and influence with respect to Pakistan. In the mid 70s, Pakistan and Iran relations started shifting from close allies to neutral. When Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto visited the Shah of Iran for financial and diplomatic support for Pakistan’s atomic bomb project in 1977, the Shah of Iran refused to support Pakistan. After the Iranian Revolutionary Guards overthrew the Shah of Iran’s regime, Pakistan was one of the first countries to recognize the Khomeini regime.


With the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Iran supported the ethnic Tajik and Pakistan supported the ethnic Pashtuns. The fight was for a common cause, to repel the Soviets from Afghanistan, but this also sowed the seeds for another shift in the foreign policy of both the countries.

The Tajiks being from the Shia (Shi’ite) school of thought were more close to Iran, and the Pashtuns from the Sunni school of thought became hot favorites of Pakistan because of the Saudi support and funding behind the curtains. This resulted in an endless conflict within Afghanistan, between the two communities on the domestic scale and between two countries on the regional scale; the allies of the yesteryears became rivals for the days to come. The bloodthirsty civilian war of the 80s and 90s within Afghanistan is a history of using proxies to gain regional dominance through regional stakeholders.

Shift in Foreign Policies:

India, being the third regional player, not only tried to hold its grounds in Afghanistan since its inception but also tried to warm up its ties with Iran. The plans of India did not go well in the 80s within Afghanistan, but the end of the Afghan conflict in the 80s and then in the 90s did pave the way for the Indians to lure the Iranian regime towards them. It is a well known fact that since the regime in Iran had been changed, India did have a good ground in Iran to carry out its activities within Afghanistan, which often showed the immaturity of the Iranian policy makers back then. On one hand, they were supporting the rebels against the Soviets and on the other, they were like home to a country which was perhaps the only open ally of the Russians.

In 1998, when Taliban took over Mazar-e-Sharif, Iran accused that Taliban kidnapped Iranian diplomats and massacred the Shi’ite population. Iran gathered and mobilized 300,000 of its troops to launch a full scale invasion in Afghanistan. Pakistan was seen as the mentors of Taliban and as an ally of the US and Saudi Arabia. Iran held Pakistan fully responsible for Taliban’s actions. True or not, the accusations and the Iranian moves further paved the way for Indian influence within the Iranian politics and policy lobbies.

Iran in the pre 9-11 period became a close ally to India and its relations with Pakistan went cold. In the post 9-11 period, Iran had been an old ally to the Northern Alliance, and India also became an indirect strategic partner to the US. Although the stereotype from Iran and the US remained the front news since the US invasion of Afghanistan, but back door diplomacy resulted into a strategic partnership, which again has a counter effect for other regional players such as China, Russia and, most importantly, Pakistan.

Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, a brief history:

Pakistan and Saudi Arabia had a neutral relationship in the beginning, but they started warming up after King Faisal took over. Since both the countries were ideologically close, the relationship was time tested and Saudi Arabia and Pakistan supported each other during conflicts/crises. It was the vision of King Faisal of Saudi Arabia who viewed Pakistan with great importance. He had great influence in Pakistan, to the extent that an industrial city in Pakistan i.e. Faisalabad was named after him; the main symbol of Islamabad which is the King Faisal Mosque was named after him and a major street in Karachi  ‘Shahrah-e-Faisal’ was named after him. In the wake of the Indian atomic test in 1974, Pakistan’s Zulifaqar Ali Bhutto lobbied with Islamic states to get diplomatic and financial support for Pakistan’s Atomic Project. Pakistan got a positive response from Saudi Arabia for its atomic project program. General Zia-ul-Haq who took over Pakistan in the late 70s was very close to Saudi Arabia. He signed several security and defence pacts with Saudi Arabia, which included the training of Saudi armed forces in Pakistan and stationing Pakistan armed forces in Saudi Arabia in the 70s and 80s.

In the early 80s, during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan supported the Afghanistan freedom fighters against the Soviet Union, and both the countries supported the same faction in Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia funded the freedom fighters through Pakistan and Pakistan became the main logistic hub for the support of the Afghani People fighting the Soviet invasion.  After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the UAE were the only countries to recognize the Taliban government which took over Kabul in 1996.

Pakistan was threatened of international sanctions in 1998 if it conducted nuclear tests. Saudi Arabia was quick to offer aid to Pakistan if sanctions were imposed on it for carrying out nuclear tests. Saudi Arabian aid helped Pakistan to cope with difficulties after the nuclear tests. Saudi-Pakistan relationship was good during Musharraf’s tenure, but took a downturn after the 2008 election in which the PPP came to power. The previous Pakistani government, while it sought to improve its ties with Iran, it ignored Saudi Arabia completely.

Iran-Pakistan Gas Pipeline, Gwadar and Chabahar:

Pakistan was actively marketing the Gwadar Port as one of the best deep sea ports in the world, and then handed it over to the Chinese government on lease for building and development.

This move by Pakistan was to get more foreign direct investment (FDI) in the country by developing key infrastructure in Gwadar. But Iran was quick in countering the move of Pakistan, by reactivating its  Chabahar port. India invested in the development of Chabahar port, and a motorway from Chabahar to Kabul is also underway. This is a move to counter the strategic upper hand of Pakistan, not only in the waters but also in the corridors of Afghanistan.

The previous Pakistani government tried to mend its relationship Iran by offering concessions and deals including the Iran-Gas Pipeline with Iran. Some experts are of the opinion that the Iran-Pakistan Gas pipeline was not in favor of Pakistan in the first place as the outgoing President Mr. Zardari signed the deal in favor of Iran just to point score in popular politics.

The gas pipeline would cost a total of $8 billion to lay the pipeline from Nawabshah to the Iranian border, and if Pakistan fails to complete it before the end of 2014, it will be subject to heavy penalty which would amount to $3 million dollar per day. Also, looking at the price of the gas delivered to Pakistan, it would be around $15-$17 MMBTU looking at the current Brent crude price. If the Brent crude price goes above $130 per barrel, Pakistan would have to pay $20 or more per MMBTU, which is very expensive.

Turkmenistan is supplying gas to Japan at a rate of $4/MMBTU, and Pakistan should negotiate further to bring down the prices. The current government, however, is taking a cautious approach with going forward with the Iran-Pakistan gas deal, and they are looking for alternatives from other sources such as Qatar, etc., at lower prices and without the need to lay down a costly $8 billion pipeline.

Afghanistan – After the US Withdrawal

Analysts fear that one of the major emerging scenarios form the post-2014 withdrawal could be the visit of the past ghost of Afghanistan – the bloody civilian war. On the other hand, the power brokers within Afghanistan such as Taliban (Pashtuns) and the warlords of the Northern Alliance will go for the ultimate control of Kabul. Regional stakeholders will surely play a part in siding with either of them. This interest is not only because of the “Corridor” that Afghanistan serves as, but also because of the trillion dollar rich minerals of Afghanistan that are being reported through different surveys.

Russia has recently shown interest in Afghanistan once again, while China is hoping to get contracts of mining in Afghanistan. Iran/India have also joined forces via Chabahar to interfere in Afghanistan’s affairs after the US withdrawal.

China is investing in Pakistan to build infrastructure like rail links from Gwadar to China, which in the future can be linked to Kabul. Because of this China-India factor and because of the age old rivalry between India and Pakistan, Iran may further widen the gap with Pakistan.


Current Scenario:

The recent developments in the Middle East and the strategic partnership between Iran, the US and India sent clear messages for the regional players. This pushed the Saudis to further escalate their relationship with the key regional player; Pakistan. A series of high level visits took place between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Several diplomatic and military officials visited each other in the past two months from both the countries. When the Saudi Crown Prince visited Pakistan in February, two important developments took place:

  1. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia agreed to have a transitional government in Syria which would bring peace and stability – a visible policy shift in any Middle Eastern crisis from Pakistan after a long time.
  2. Iran threatened to send forces inside Pakistan to recover its five kidnapped border guards by a new militant group named ‘Jaish Al-Adl’. This is a breaking point in Iran-Pakistan relationship, where Iran openly accuses Pakistan of aiding the group or being incapable of recovering the kidnapped border guards. Pakistan has continuously stated that the kidnapped border guards might not necessarily be inside Pakistani territory and could be inside Iran.

The media, on the other hand, published speculative reports about the defence pact between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. It was published without any authentic source or reference in some publications that Saudi Arabia may go for JF-17 thunder and Al-Khalid Tanks. Also, that Saudi Arabia may want to go for anti-aircrafts, which will be later supplied to the Syrian rebels; while completely missing the point that Pakistan is a supplier of weapons to many countries including Saudi Arabia; and there is nothing new about it in these recent deals, except an expected hike in the purchases by Saudi Arabia.

These are the aftershocks; the big wave was the strategic partnership of Iran, the US and India. The tsunami, however, has yet to emerge in the post 2014 scenario.

Sheikh Fahad is a business review lead analyst for magazine Stratagem. His area of expertise is current affairs of the Middle East, analysis of economic activities in the region and specializes in oil and gas related consultancy.

Discussion12 Comments

  1. The article starts in a balanced fashion and then shows sharp bias in favor of Saudi Arabia near the end. Let me also dispel a fallacious impression. There is no strategic partnership between Iran-USA. It is not even a “thaw” in relations. If talks fail, an Iran-USA war could happen anytime. If we are too close to Saudi-USA, we will be forced to take sides and a civil war will break out in Pakistan. Infighting will not just be sectarian, rather our public is acutely aware of global happenings and knows the larger politics. Pakistan must maintain a balance between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Pakistan must be equally close to both

  2. Iranians have a strange bent of mind through they think themselves as Shia super-power. Same can be said about Sauids as well. Mater of fact is that they are two countries who sponsor terrorism in the name of religion. They cant be trusted and have no value except humans blood on their hands. Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen and Egypt is a clear indication of their hypocrisy. They are bunch of scumbag lunatics who have no worth in the eyes of other nations.

    • What is wrong with you? We should be proud of Iran for the last 35 years they have resisted the Western Imperialists policy towards them. Iran may be a Shia republic, but it’s not the only country in the World to support all Muslims in the World, when they are in trouble, where in the World are Saudi Arabia or other countries to their rescue? No where! Iran was totally against the invasion of Iraq and the bombing of Libya and also the removal of President Morsi, it was even strongly condemned by the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic on his Eid ul Fitr Khutba last year. What goes for Yemen, it’s s 100 % US/EU/NATO backed regime, and they are not representing the Yemen’s people. We should be proud of Syria who is the only Arab state to fully support Palestinians right, no other Arab states does that as Syria do. God Bless the Axis of Resistance (Iran/Syria/Hezbollah) !

  3. Jinnah, Bhutto, Zardari and PPP being Shia preferred close ties with Iran. Gen. Zia, Pervez Musharraf, Nawaz Sharief and his PML being Sunnis preferred Saudi Arabia. If a nation’s foreign policies change with the change in governments, such situations will arise.

    Often Pakistani analysts talk of Iran-US-India nexus. India-US and India-Iran is understandable but Iran-US alliance is inexplicable. Siding with Saudi at the cost of neighbour Iran will prove disastrous for Pakistan. If it cant balance between Iran and Saudi how Pakistan will balance Saudi and China over Uyghurs? Pakistan needs a national foreign policy and not foreign policies of PPP, PML or its Army.

    • Aseem,,,Bhutto and ppp is not shia party,,they are muslims,,and bhutto was sunni, and in party shia’s and sunny’s both peoples are included…dont go in the sense of shia & sunni

  4. @Mohammed Ali
    I agree with you, Pakistani actions should be dictated by self-interests and Pakistan has no enemy including our easterly neighbour…We are best friends with the world overall…

    • Its in Pakistan’s national interest to have good ties with its easterly neighbour. Iran is only interested in Shias. Afghanistan minus Taliban is not interested in Pakistan. And other than selling weapons and having strategic presence in the area, China has never been of help to Pakistan at the time of her need be it 1971, 1987 or 1999. Its high time Pakistan realizes where its national interests are.

  5. @Us – Iran is only interested in Shias. Afghanistan minus Taliban is not interested in you. Other than selling weapons and serving its own strategic interests, china has never been of any help in time of your need like 1971, 1987 or 1999.
    Its high time Pakistan realizes where its national interests are.

  6. A country that considers itself as ideologically aligned with Saudi Arabia, the must regressive and brutal dictatorship in the world, has no future.

  7. Immature analysis about Indo-Iran relations if Have good relation with Russia make india “Untouchable” then so is for Pakistan having good relations with China and Chinese are good friends of Russia… What logic do u gyz still call yourself neutral..Strange

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