Why Pakistan Is Staying Out of Yemen

April 27, 2015 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Tags: YemenPakistanDefense

Why Pakistan Is Staying Out of Yemen

"Pakistan’s decision not to join the Saudi-led intervention against Houthi rebels in Yemen may signal a serious cooling in relations between Islamabad and Riyadh."

Key U.S. allies, including Saudi Arabia and Israel, will keep a close eye on any developments they view as indicating a rapprochement between Washington and Tehran. While these partnerships continue to be vital elements of American foreign policy, a U.S. rebalance to Asia (in addition to our continuing interests in Afghanistan) will, by definition, entail putting greater weight on the importance of stability and economic integration in the subcontinent. Iran, as an adjacent regional power, will inevitably play a role in these developments, and sooner rather than later if a nuclear agreement is completed successfully. The question will be how much of a say the United States has in the orientation of potential new trade and energy agreements.

Warming relations between Pakistan and Iran may complement efforts by China, another long-time ally of Pakistan, to expand its influence in the region. This was exemplified in the April 20 announcement that Beijing, will be investing $46 billion in the country to promote its China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, designed to provide the Chinese with friendly and reliable access to the Indian Ocean. The United States cannot, and should not get into a bidding war with China for influence in Pakistan. Such an effort would be a foolish waste of resources. China and Pakistan have long been linked by a mutual desire to balance India, and although Washington shares some important goals for Pakistan with the Chinese—namely, counter-terrorism and political stability—China’s greater willingness to turn a blind eye to the means by which these goals are achieved (such as military governance or human rights abuses) help make it a more appealing partner to many of Pakistan’s leaders. Beijing’s larger goal, as evidenced by its move to fund an Iran-Pakistan natural gas pipeline, is to facilitate regional linkages in pursuit of energy diversification and greater regional influence. The United States  would do well to offer its own alternatives, beyond the TAPI pipeline, to ensure its goals of stabilizing Afghanistan and rebalancing to the region are met.

That being said, American officials can allay concerns amongst its allies in the Middle East by rightly pointing out that promoting regional cooperation by no means indicates attempts at a U.S.-Iran alliance or the abandonment of current U.S. allies. As Robert Kaplan writes, “détente is a major adjustment of policy, not a complete negation of it,” and U.S. diplomats in Riyadh and Jerusalem will play a vital role in reassuring our allies during this period of adjustment.

These are, admittedly, preliminary steps—and Islamabad may very well backtrack should the diplomatic winds shift. If, for instance, nuclear negotiations were to collapse, and/or tensions between Iran and Pakistan were to re-emerge, analysts could expect to see Pakistan attempt to rebalance toward Riyadh. On the other hand, should successful nuclear negotiations with Iran allow for greater economic and political integration and should Pakistan continue to see closer relations with Iran as in its interest, it is likely that the Saudi-Pakistan relationship (and, indeed, Pakistan’s relationship with much of the Sunni Arab World) will continue to cool. In the meantime, policymakers should not underestimate the significance of this break with history, and be prepared to do some reevaluating of their own.

Louis Ritzinger is a Bridge Award Fellow at NBR. As a Bridge Award Fellow with the Political and Security Affairs group, his primary responsibilities include supporting research projects, including Mapping Pakistan’s Security Dynamics and Strategic Asia, and assisting with congressional outreach.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Raza0007