Pakistan’s clout grows as US official’s visit underscores its go-between role in Iranian affairs

Pakistan’s foreign office in a statement on Tuesday said “a productive discussion on all aspects of bilateral relation was held” during Bass’ visit, following a trip to Islamabad by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi a week earlier.

Raisi’s visit came after Iran’s first-ever direct attack on Israel on April 15 involving ballistic missiles and drones in response to an earlier assault by the Jewish-majority state on the Iranian embassy in Syria. Israel reportedly retaliated several days later targeting military sites in Iran although Tehran had downplayed the counterstrike.

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With tensions in the region running high, any further escalation by Israel would leave Pakistan, as a neighbour of Iran, the only “trusted ally to the US” in the vicinity, Wasi said.

“Pakistan’s strategic significance [is] tremendously [enhanced] … There are many such developments in the region that the US may ponder on, and it understands Pakistan’s role.”

The gas pipeline dilemma

During Raisi’s visit, Pakistan and Iran discussed completing a cross-border gas pipeline first mooted by both countries in the early 1990s and formally signed in 2013. While Iran has completed its segment, the construction of an 80km stretch to be built by Pakistan has been suspended amid fears of US sanctions.

Energy-deficit Pakistan hopes to tap cheaper sources to avoid paying heavy oil import bills due to its dwindling foreign exchange reserves. Islamabad and Tehran also agreed to increase bilateral trade to US$10 billion in the coming years from US$1.5 billion last year.

“Pakistan is not in a position to further delay the pipeline project as it would also have consequences,” said Nabila Jaffer, research analyst at the Institute of Regional Studies. She highlighted the severe implications of a penalty of US$18 billion demanded by Iran if Pakistan could not complete its part of the project.

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Conversely, the prospect of US sanctions targeting Iranian imports including gas could be a nightmare scenario for Pakistan, which relies heavily on Western financial help, according to observers.

“Iran is pressuring Pakistan, and the fear of US sanctions also looms large,” said Jaffer Ahmed, head of the Pakistan Study Centre at Karachi University, who warned that managing a “balancing act” would be difficult for Islamabad.

The Bass visit could also signal that the US wants to find an alternative energy source for Pakistan instead of Iran, observers say.

Wasi said: “Following the visit of the Iranian president, discussion [with the US] now would also include economic cooperation … this clearly shows the US does not want Pakistan to engage with Iran on trade and energy matters”.

The Pakistani foreign office said in a statement: “The two sides [the US and Pakistan] reaffirmed the commitment to enhance cooperation in the areas of trade, investment and regional security.”

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Five Chinese engineers killed in suicide bomb attack in Pakistan

Five Chinese engineers killed in suicide bomb attack in Pakistan

Refugee concerns

One issue that was likely discussed during Bass’ visit to Islamabad was the longstanding plight of Afghan refugees.

Last November, Pakistan launched the first-round repatriation of the refugees, returning about half a million of the around 1.7 million refugees living in the country.

The move came amid international appeals to halt the expulsions, citing concerns that the volatile situation in Afghanistan poses significant dangers for those who fled following the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul in 2021.

“The repatriation issue of Afghan refugees in Pakistan may remain one of the issues to be discussed [between Washington and Islamabad],” Wasi said.

Pakistan’s decision to repatriate Afghan refugees followed a series of terrorist attacks on government and foreign facilities, with Chinese interests a prime target. These attacks were attributed to the Pakistani Taliban and other terrorist groups believed to be sheltering in Afghanistan, who could easily blend in with Afghan refugees.

Another round of repatriation is on the cards.

The launch of 1st HANGOR Class submarine constructed for Pakistan’s Navy held in Wuhan on April 26. China and Pakistan have forged closer ties in areas including defence in recent years. Photo: Pakistan Navy

“Pakistan [would have shared with the US] its concerns of anti-Pakistan terrorist sanctuaries in Afghanistan,” Nabila Jaffer said.

Given the Middle East crisis and the Ukraine war, the US is emphasising stability in Afghanistan and other countries in the region.

“We can see very active diplomatic efforts from the US to address the situation in Afghanistan … so this is a moment of opportunity for Pakistan [to tap on],” Wasi said.

The current Taliban regime in Afghanistan maintains a hostile stance towards Pakistan. As such, the US and other countries can play a key fence-mending role by encouraging Pakistan to engage Afghanistan through trade, education and other areas, according to analysts.

Pakistan’s increasing importance on the geopolitical front comes amid a series of high-profile visits by its leaders in the past year. Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif visited Saudi Arabia twice in April while military chief General Asim Munir made a four-day official trip to China last year.

“There are many regional developments that reinforce the US’s view of the indispensability of engaging with Pakistan,” Wasi said.

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