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Asia

Can Iran's Rouhani win over Pakistan?

Iranian President Rouhani's Pakistan visit comes at a delicate time for both Tehran and Islamabad. The neighboring countries want to improve economic ties, but the Saudi-Iranian rivalry continues to be a big impediment.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is set to tour Pakistan on Friday, March 25, but there is hardly any fanfare in the Pakistani media. Visits by Iranian authorities are relatively less important in Pakistan than the ones made by Saudi monarchs. It is no secret that Islamabad has always had closer ties with Riyadh than Tehran.

That does not mean that President Rouhani's Friday visit carries no significance. There has been a lot at stake for both Tehran and Islamabad since the lifting of some international sanctions on Iran and the growing Saudi-Iranian hostility in the Middle East.

On the one hand, Pakistan considers Iran a potential partner which can help overcome its dire energy needs, and on the other, it does not want to offend Saudi Arabia by getting too close to Tehran. Islamabad, therefore, is trying to balance things out by claiming it wants to bring the Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia and the Shiite Iran closer, but experts say it is a tightrope walk, which could also prove to be dangerous.

Rouhani is aware of the concerns and limitations of his country's ties with Pakistan. But analysts say he still wants to maintain "normal" relations with the neighboring country.

Iranians work on a section of a pipeline (on with are sticked Iranian and Pakistanese national flags) after the project was launched during a ceremony with presidents of Iran and Pakistan on March 11, 2013 in the Iranian border city of Chah Bahar (Photo: ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)

The Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline project was initiated in 2013

"I think the main objective of President Rouhani's visit is to reinforce the strong commercial and economic relations between the two countries. Though Pakistan has long been allied with Tehran's Saudi rival, Pakistan and Iran have quite a history of trade relations," Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, told DW.

"With many sanctions on Iran now removed, there are even bigger and better opportunities for these two countries to take their economic relationship even further," said the analyst, adding that he expected Rouhani to discuss these matters with Pakistani authorities on Friday.

The expert also said the trip carried more symbolic significance than anything else. "One of the goals is to highlight the shared cultural links between the two countries, and another is to underscore a sense of Muslim unity," Kugelman underlined.

Does trade supersede security issues?

Iran's nuclear deal with the West has allowed South Asian nations to reset their trade ties with Tehran. But the situation is also intensifying the fight for resources in the region.

Pakistan's Minister for Petroleum and Natural Resources, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, said in July last year that work on the pending Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline project would resume in the wake of Iran's nuclear deal with the world powers. Pakistan, which has been facing an acute energy crisis for many years, plans to use funds provided by China to complete its part of the project which had been interrupted due to the international sanctions on Tehran.

The removal of economic sanctions on Iran has cleared the way for Islamabad to pursue the gas pipeline for eventually importing up to $2.5 billion (2.3 billion euros) worth of Iranian gas annually, according to Abbasi.

"Pakistan has been trying to overcome its energy crisis by importing gas from Iran but sanctions on Iran had hampered the work on the project," Abbasi was quoted as saying by Radio Pakistan following the landmark Iranian deal in Vienna on July 14.

Kugelman believes the gas pipeline – albeit completed – would not be a cornerstone for deeper Pakistani-Iranian ties. "The US and India described a civil nuclear energy deal they signed some years ago as such a cornerstone for a deeper relationship, but that was quite different in that the deal was seen more as a strategic tool, and less as an energy deal," said the Washington-based analyst.

"By contrast, with the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, Islamabad and Tehran both see it as purely an energy deal, invested with relatively little strategic value. Part of the reason for this is that Pakistan still invests so much more strategic importance in its relationship with the Saudis," Kugelman added.

It also remains unclear whether India would continue to be part of the project. The Iranian deal has presented new opportunities for New Delhi, which can now bypass Pakistan in dealing with Iran and Afghanistan and expand its economic influence to Central Asia.

Strategic bumps

Saudi Arabia is keeping a close eye on Pakistan's dealings with Iran. The ties between Riyadh and Islamabad deteriorated last year after Saudi authorities asked Islamabad to officially join an alliance of the Arab states against Iran-backed Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen. Pakistan categorically said it did not want to get involved in the Saudi-Iranian regional rivalry.

Despite Pakistan's refusal to join the coalition, it has kept its relation with Tehran to a minimum.

Saudi Arabia's Minister of Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir (L) meets Pakistani Chief of Army Staff Raheel Sharif(R) at general staff headquarters in Rawalpindi, Pakistan on January 7, 2016 (Photo: picture-alliance/AA/ISPR)

Pakistani-Saudi military ties are very strong

"Pakistan remains solidly allied with Saudi Arabia, regardless of how intense the outreach may be from Tehran. There are decades of close military cooperation that are not about to undone," Kugelman told DW.

"However, there is an opening for Pakistan and Iran to deepen their relationship beyond the purely cultural and economic. This is because Pakistan has grown increasingly uncomfortable with Saudi pressure to join its anti-ISIS coalition. I would not say the Pakistan-Saudi Arabia relationship is in crisis, though it is certainly under some strain," he added.

Pakistan's sectarian strife

The South Asian country's intelligentsia and civil society have voiced their displeasure and concern over Pakistan's potential involvement in the Saudi-Iranian conflict.

"Pakistan should not get involved in the Saudi Arabia-Iran regional rivalry," Mosharraf Zaidi, a former USAID consultant and Islamabad-based foreign policy expert, told DW. "We must not forget that Riyadh and Tehran have their own interests, therefore the Pakistani government, too, should do what is best for the country. It must keep good relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran," he added.

The sectarian Shiite-Sunni strife in Pakistan has been ongoing for some time now, with militant Islamist groups unleashing terror on the minority Shiite groups in many parts of the country. Most of these outfits, including the Taliban, take inspiration from the hardline Saudi-Wahabi Islamic ideology.

Pakistani Shiite Muslims march during a protest in Islamabad on January 8, 2016, against the Pakistan's government decision to join a Saudi Arabian-led coalition against extremism and the execution of prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr (AFP PHOTO / Aamir QURESHI / AFP / AAMIR QURESHI (c) Getty Images/AFP/A. Qureshi)

Pakistani Shiites are against Islamabad's close ties with Riyadh

"For Pakistan's Islamic fundamentalists, the country is already a 'Sunni Wall' against Shiite Iran," Siegfried O. Wolf, an expert at the University of Heidelberg's South Asia Institute, told DW.

"The policy of containing the Shiite influence in the region was seriously affected after the collapse of the Sunni Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001 and the subsequent overthrow of Saddam Hussein's government in Iraq. These events created a power vacuum which is now being increasingly filled by Tehran. Saudi Arabia does not want to see the rise of Iran and will continue to do anything to ensure Sunni dominance," he added.

But Kugelman believes that Iranian President Rouhani is unlikely to touch upon the issue of Sunni militancy. "My sense is that this trip is meant to be a feel-good summit. I doubt that either side will broach the tension points, whether we are talking about the activities of the Sunni extremist Jindullah group along the Iranian border, or Pakistani concerns about Iranian meddling with its minority Shiite community."