Pakistan is going through a democratic transition after the vote of no-confidence against Prime Minister Imran Khan. Shehbaz Sharif, brother of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, has been appointed to the prime ministerial office by Pakistan’s Parliament. After he lost the majority in the Parliament, the departure of Khan was anything but smooth. He alleged that because of his visit to Russia to meet President Vladmir Putin amid the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the United States had conspired to topple his government by buying parliamentarians of his own party (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) as well as those belonging to opposition parties. This conspiracy theory gained traction among the Pakistani public, with Khan mobilising the masses to call for early elections.
While China, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have closely followed the political developments taking place in Pakistan, Iran was quick to express support for the embattled former Pakistani prime minister. Khan’s conspiracy theory was overblown in Iran’s electronic and print media. The harmony between Khan’s party and Iran’s government is anything but surprising. His anti-US position since the late 1990s, his opposition to the US war on terror, the US invasion of Iraq and US drone attacks inside Pakistan not only swelled his popularity inside Pakistan but also in Iran.
By 2011, prominent figures known for holding pro-Iran positions had joined Khan’s party. Shireen Mazari, an analyst on foreign affairs who had previously never been elected to Parliament, became Khan’s key confidante. She was the most outspoken anti-Arab and anti-US but extremely pro-Iran leader of Khan’s party at the time. Others joined as well. Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who would become Pakistan’s foreign minister under Khan’s government, shared similar views to Mazari. Throughout Khan’s tenure since 2018, Pakistan’s relations with the United States, Europe and the Gulf states were far from cordial. Instead, on some occasions, Islamabad’s bilateral ties with its traditional and time-tested allies reached the lowest depths.
Khan’s government improved ties with Tehran. Iran’s foreign minister was the most frequent visitor to Islamabad and if it was not for the fear of US sanctions, a boost in economic trade and the sale of military technology were inevitable. Since government ministers and advisors with pro-Iran positions predominantly surrounded Khan, Pakistan’s isolation on the foreign policy front was inevitable especially among Gulf states. However, there were some sticking points between Pakistan and Iran during Khan’s tenure. The smuggling on the Pakistan-Iran border increased while the shared border was not sealed during the early and most critical phase of the coronavirus pandemic. Irritants like the arrest of returning Zeinabiyoun mercenaries to Pakistan and cross-border support for Baloch militants raised tensions between the two countries but did not prevent the commanders of Iran’s armed forces from paying multiple visits to Islamabad.
Now that Shehbaz Sharif is the Pakistani prime minister, relations with Iran are likely to stay warm but we are unlikely to see government ministers embracing pro-Iran and anti-Arab positions. In his maiden speech, Shehbaz Sharif acknowledged the importance of relations with Iran and the need to improve economic ties while stressing the significance of relations with traditional allies and partners such as China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the UAE and other Gulf states. The current coalition government sits on a very thin majority; hence, it will not be able to make major foreign policy changes immediately, but it will surely be able to correct the course of bilateral relations. Islamabad’s relations with the United States and the Gulf states are sure to improve, especially with Saudi Arabia given Shehbaz Sharif’s and his brother’s warm relations with the Kingdom, much to the disappointment of Iran.