Friday, May 24, 2024

Iran’s Raisi in Pakistan: What’s Behind the High-Stakes Visit?

HomeWARIran's Raisi in Pakistan: What's Behind the High-Stakes Visit?

Islamabad, Pakistan – In a diplomatically charged move dripping with risk and symbolism, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has touched down in Pakistan’s militarized capital. His three-day sojourn comes just days after a seismic clash of missile strikes between Iran and Israel threatened to engulf the region in a wider conflagration.

Raisi’s agenda is cleared for crunch talks with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and the ever-powerful Army Chief Asim Munir. Ostensibly, the focus is economic – boosting trade, energy cooperation and streamlining mal-policed borders that bleed billions in illicit commerce annually.

But the overriding subtext screams louder. By Raisi’s own admission, this union-strengthening exercise with Pakistan is a “neighborhood policy” imperative for Iran at precisely the moment it seems to be hurtling towards ruinous confrontation with its sworn enemy Israel.

In thinly veiled terms from Tehran, the subcontinent ally is being heavily leaned on to issue utterances of “support” – if not more – for Iran’s newly ignited fight with the Jewish State. A charged pause drips into the aftermath of the unprecedented missile strikes by each side into the other’s territory earlier this month.

For Pakistan though, donning the garb of overt partisan in the ancient Iran-Israel enmity is a cosmically complicated needle to thread. House-trained diplomats in Islamabad moved deftly to strike a balance after the cross-border rocket barrages, calling for “restraint” while decrying the “breakdown of diplomacy.”

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But Pakistan’s perilously polarized domestic milieu, not to mention its permanent economic purgatory leaving it forever teetering on insolvency, may well constrain any scope for rhetorical grandstanding on the Middle East’s latest vertiginous imbroglios.

One advisor highlighted just how delicately leveraged Pakistan is right now: “There is no indication that any gestural pivot towards Iran against Israel is on the cards right now. Not with Pakistan being intestinally gripped by all-consuming political and economic woes.”

The sulphurous visit kicks off against a backdrop of decades of blistering mistrust between Iran and Pakistan over their porous 900km border region. In Jan 2024, a murderous Iranian cross-border airstrike inside Pakistan – ostensibly targeting ethnic Baloch separatists – killed two young children, prompting Pakistan’s retaliatory missile strikes.

Only recent re-committed vows to combat “terrorism” together prevented a deeper plunge into violently unraveling relations. But the cycle of accusations from each side over harboring militants has never ceased.

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Which is why, beneath the noisy ticker of “trade and investment” projections set to be trotted out in Islamabad this week, observers are dissecting far more tectonic possibilities.

“Shorn of euphemisms, this visit is Iran effectively trying to recruit Pakistan as supportive cover for looming war against Israel,” said one veteran diplomat. “Even rhetorical endorsements from Islamabad would support the anti-Zionist narrative Tehran is crafting.”

It’s a narrative Iran realizes will prove indispensable should hostilities escalate in the Mideast, he added. The 32-year pariah regime remains largely isolated on the global stage, with few influential allies beyond the likes of Syria and Venezuela.

Little wonder then that the recently re-committed “Islamic unity” between Shiite Iran and Sunni-majority Pakistan – a nuclear weapons state – is being leveraged as a golden geostrategic tangerine at this precise moment.

Pakistan though retains little appetite for being dragged overtly into a conflict with world-shaking ramifications, no matter how compellingly it was pitched by itsIranian brothers. Having long punched below its weight internationally, Pakistan’s increasingly histrionic domestic sagas have seen its diplomatic dynamism atrophy.

At times it can barely rustle up full-throated denunciations when its own territory and sovereignty are repeatedly assailed by terrorism and extremism – never mind full-bodied statements intervening in others’ long-simmering feuds.

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So the issue becomes how far Iran probes for statements of unambiguous support – or perhaps clandestine, multi-layered operational assistance – during Raisi’s high-wire visit this week.

Already Tehran’s diplomatic corps are touting ambitious targets of $10 billion in annual bilateral trade – a huge leap from the current $2 billion. Statements encouraging cross-border travel, tourism, pilgrimage and energy deals have also been bulldozed into the public narrative.

A carefully seeded impression emerges – one of rapidly deepening Pakistan-Iran ties that Israel would be foolish to further inflame. But reading between the lines, something far more combustible may be smoldering beneath long-steeping efforts to link Pakistan inextricably as an ally for Iran’s possible war effort.

Whether torn-apart Pakistan fully comprehends the depth of risk being cultivated on its territory this week remains hazily opaque. But in an already molten Middle Eastern cauldron, an unprecedented new tinderbox of involvement is quietly being constructed in the badlands along the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier.

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Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee is a prolific author who provides commentary and analysis on business, finance, politics, sports, and current events on his website Opportuneist. With over a decade of experience in journalism and blogging, Mezhar aims to deliver well-researched insights and thought-provoking perspectives on important local and global issues in society.

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