US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan shake hands during their meeting in the White House in Washington on July 22. Photo: AFP / Michael Reynolds / Pool via CNP

As tensions continue to rise between the United States and Iran, several of the countries caught between the two sides have been trying to find a peaceful way out of the diplomatic crisis. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan made the first overt attempt, though his June 12 visit to Tehran was scuttled by attacks on oil tankers that Washington immediately attributed to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has since signaled his willingness to pick up the torch, discussing the issue with Abe and suggesting Japan and Turkey could work in tandem.

While Tokyo and Ankara both have important economic relationships with Tehran and long-standing alliances with Washington, another potential mediator – Pakistan – could ultimately be best positioned to navigate the tensions among Tehran, Washington and the Gulf emirates bent on curbing Iran’s regional influence. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan arrived in Washington on Saturday and had his first meeting with Donald Trump on Monday. The US president offered to mediate between India and Pakistan over the Kashmir conflict, and it’s hoped that Imran Khan can use his efforts to lend his support to Abe’s and Erdogan’s efforts.

Gulf tensions a serious concern for Islamabad

Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry is clearly concerned about the potential for conflict. In May, spokesman Mohammad Faisal said Islamabad hoped all sides would climb down from the “disturbing” state of affairs in the Persian Gulf, criticizing Washington’s decision to send an aircraft carrier and bombers to the region. If Pakistan is sounding the alarm over the potential for military action on its doorstep, it is because relations with three of the major protagonists – the US, Saudi Arabia, and Iran itself – are cornerstones of the country’s foreign policy and economy.

Imran Khan traveled to Iran on a two-day visit in April, addressing a press conference with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and discussing a bilateral trade relationship hindered by US sanctions and non-tariff barriers. Rouhani offered to help meet Pakistan’s oil and gas needs if Islamabad could complete its end of the long-delayed US$7.5 billion Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, a proposition that has since come to naught in the face of ever more restrictive US sanctions.

Tehran may have hoped to present the prime minister’s visit as a new start to bilateral relations, but Pakistan’s alliances with the US and Saudi Arabia place a hard ceiling on any potential rapprochement between Pakistan and Iran. It’s difficult enough already for Islamabad to improve energy ties with Iran in the face of US sanctions and Saudi suspicions. A new war in the Persian Gulf would make the task all but impossible.

The promise of Pakistan-Iran energy relations

Those geopolitical complications are standing in the way of a golden opportunity for Pakistan’s energy sector. Iran reportedly has the potential to export 3,000 megawatts of electricity to Pakistan’s energy-starved economy. A research paper from the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad suggests the Iran-Pakistan pipeline could meet a quarter of the country’s energy needs while playing a vital role in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). A 2014 report from the Islamabad Policy and Research Institute cited the pipeline as a solution to Pakistan’s energy crisis and said the imported gas could save Islamabad $1 billion annually.

Pakistan’s former finance minister, economist Dr Hafeez Pasha, also views the pipeline as the most suitable choice when compared with other options, such as the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India Pipeline (TAPI), the Central Asia-South Asia (CASA-1000) project, or imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Qatar, thanks to the pipeline’s low cost and Iran’s close proximity to Pakistan.

Managing US and Saudi objections

While the pipeline may make logistical sense, the tensions between Washington and Tehran – as well as Saudi Arabia’s status as a strong ally of Pakistan but a major regional rival of Iran – have thrown a wrench in the works.

Washington’s sanctions on Iran present a significant problem for Islamabad’s energy security, as Michael Kugelman of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington recently explained. US sanctions have helped foster the delays in the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline. In line with Washington’s concerns over Iran’s nuclear program, the US opposes the project, viewing it as a threat to its own interests in the region; since long before Trump took office, American policy has sought to prevent Iran from becoming a central player in the energy market. The US government has consistently pressured Pakistan to refrain from dealing with its oil- and gas-rich neighbor, with the delayed pipeline only the latest example.

While Washington wants to prevent Iran from exploiting its position in the energy market, Pakistan is in desperate need of energy. Islamabad meets a full 90% of its power demand through petroleum products imported from the Middle East. At the same time, Pakistan also relies on Saudi Arabia for financial aid; Riyadh has a history of providing critical funds to Pakistan’s perennially cash-strapped government, most recently injecting $6 billion to save it from a financial crisis in October 2018. Improving relations between Tehran and Islamabad would thus carry the risk of jeopardizing Pakistan’s close relationship with Riyadh.

Pakistan as a peacemaker?

Successive Pakistani governments have nonetheless aimed to establish better relations with Iran while recognizing the importance of the relationship with Saudi Arabia. In 2016, for example, then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif offered to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran after Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr was executed by Saudi authorities and protesters in Tehran responded by firebombing the Saudi Embassy. Nor is Pakistan totally beholden to its Saudi benefactors; the country has remained neutral with regards to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, as well as during the Qatar diplomatic crisis.

In these most recent tensions among Washington, Riyadh and Tehran, Pakistan could help secure its own interests by joining its counterparts in Japan and Turkey to mediate a way out of the impasse. If Imran Khan succeeds in helping move the current state of tensions in the Gulf toward reconciliation, he would simultaneously make headway on some of Pakistan’s most pressing energy challenges. Imran Khan’s meeting with Trump is a positive sign, and all of this may come to fruition quite soon.

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