The ouster of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, which he claims was a US-orchestrated regime change to punish him for his independent foreign policy while the Establishment-backed coalition authorities insist that it was a constitutional and purely domestic political process, caught many observers by surprise. The formerly ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI) campaign to discredit this development, led from the front by former Prime Minister Khan, has inspired some of the largest rallies in Pakistan’s history but is regarded by its opponents as an almost treasonous incitement to violence.
Everything is extremely tense in this geostrategically positioned country at the crossroads of Central, South, and West Asia, and political violence has already occurred at high levels. PTI dissident Noor Alam Khan and members of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) thrashed1 someone who criticized them last week during an iftar dinner in a private hotel. This was followed by PTI members attacking2 their political opponents in the Punjab provincial assembly on Saturday prior to them electing newly inaugurated Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s son3 as the region’s new Chief Minister.
Major political figures, both incumbent and previously serving, have ominously hinted that nationwide violence might be just around the corner. Former Minister for Information and Broadcasting Fawad Chaudhry tweeted4 on Saturday after the incident in Punjab that “We are inches away from full fledge Civil unrest, @ImranKhanPTI has exercised utmost restraint very soon even he won’t be able to stop this very angry mob and we ll see Country plunging into a civil unrest, imported leaders ll not be able to leave the Country.”
A little more than an hour later, Prime Minister Sharif also tweeted5 that “PTI/PMLQ MPAs attack on Dy Speaker inside Punjab Assembly must be condemned in strongest terms possible. This blatant display of violence & hooliganism is fascism, pure & simple. IK’s desperation & incitement to violence is rupturing our society. He is attacking democracy itself.” The new Pakistani ruler’s remarks imply that PTI has become a national security threat, which has fueled speculation among many on social media that it might soon be banned on that pretext.
As a neighboring country, Iran is closely watching these dynamic events unfold and must be prepared for the range of scenarios that they might lead to. Pakistan has a history of military rule and there’s a possibility that this could at least in theory be repeated sometime in the coming future if the domestic security situation continues to deteriorate due to political violence between PTI and its opponents. PTI has also been accused6 of illegally receiving foreign funding, which could also end up resulting in it being banned if the courts rule that this did indeed take place.
The massive support that the formerly ruling party and its leader enjoy throughout the country as evidenced by the enormous rallies that they’ve inspired suggests that PTI’s potential banning on whatever pretext it might speculatively take place could lead to widespread unrest that might prompt the military to intervene in order to restore law and order in the worst-case scenario. Furthermore, it deserves mentioning that these rallies aren’t just in the former Prime Minister’s support, but are also against America, which he claims to have been behind his ouster.
Pakistani society has always had very strong undercurrents of anti-Americanism due to people’s frustration at how blatantly their country’s traditional partner has historically mistreated it, the sentiments of which were amplified under former Prime Minister Khan’s premiership whenever he regularly brought this up in his many speeches. It can therefore be said that the political instability in Pakistan is partially fueled by society’s fierce opposition to the US’ alleged meddling in their democracy, which makes these rallies the largest anti-American ones in the world at the present moment.
The new coalition authorities cannot repair their country’s troubled ties with the US like Prime Minister Sharif expressed interest in doing during his inauguration speech so long as Pakistan remains the global epicenter of anti-Americanism right now due to the ideological dimension of its ongoing protest movement. The US cannot reciprocate the new leader’s intent due to the uncomfortable optics of supporting a country that allows such anti-Americanism to spread like wildfire within society, especially ahead of the fall midterm elections since the Republicans could use this against the Democrats.
Considering the domestic and international political dynamics at play, it can be assessed that the new coalition authorities have every reason to try to regain control of the situation as soon as possible, including through the potential banning of PTI even if this might inadvertently provoke very serious unrest across the country that ultimately requires a military intervention to manage. Pakistan’s previous military administrations were all decisively pro-American, and if any speculatively forthcoming one fits that description as well, then it could create serious concerns for neighboring Iran.
The pro-US school of thought within The Establishment, which in Pakistani parlance refers to the country’s influential military-intelligence institutions, might be ideologically inclined to recalibrate their state’s Eurasian balancing act closer to the US out of concern that it’s titled too close towards Russia in recent years at the expense of relations with their traditional American partner. There’s nothing wrong with that in theory since doing so would be Pakistan’s sovereign right but Iran should closely monitor the situation in case it leads to a significant change of policy in the military-strategic sense.
In particular, while the Director General of the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR, the press service of the Pakistani Armed Forces) denied7 that the US ever asked his country to host military bases ahead of its withdrawal from Afghanistan, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan nevertheless hinted8 at such talks last summer when saying that he held “constructive discussions in military, intelligence, diplomatic channels with Pakistan about the future of America’s capabilities to ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a base from which al-Qaeda, ISIS or any other terrorist group can attack the United States.”
This American official added that “What I will say we are talking to a wide range of countries about how we build effective over the horizon capacity both from intelligence and from defense prospective to be able to suppress terrorism threat in Afghanistan.” While that doesn’t explicitly reveal the existence of discussions pertaining to Pakistan’s possible hosting of US bases that former Prime Minister Khan unforgettably replied “absolutely not” to during a media interview when asked about that scenario, it certainly suggests that the topic might have been brought up, even if only informally.
There’s no reason to expect Pakistan’s new coalition authorities or their Establishment backers, who are speculated to nowadays be influenced by the pro-US school of thought within them after the country’s contentious change of government and former Prime Minister Khan’s accusations about America’s hidden hand, to invite the US military or the CIA back into its territory. Be that as it may, from an Iranian policymaking perspective, this scenario cannot comfortably be dismissed for the time being while the situation remains so fluid and the domestic political context behind it is so scandalous.
The perception of Pakistan recalibrating its Eurasian balancing act in an US-friendly direction might also prompt concerns about whether that country’s traditional American ally might encourage it to promote Washington’s interests across the tri-regional space in which it’s located. To be absolutely clear, Pakistan has objective national interests in Afghanistan and Iran that are independent of any foreign influence but which might also coincide with American interests depending on the ideological disposition of those within its Establishment who might be prominently formulating policy nowadays.
For instance, ties with Taliban-controlled Afghanistan are complicated due to that group’s support of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which is designated by Islamabad as a terrorist organization. Furthermore, the Taliban don’t recognize the Durand Line as the international boundary between Afghanistan and Pakistan. They also accordingly object to Pakistan’s fencing of this frontier. Rising Taliban-Pakistan tensions might align with American interests in the sense that the US is against this de facto national liberation organization that just freed their country from two decades of US occupation.
Considering the discussions that Sullivan revealed that he had with the Pakistani Establishment last summer and which hinted at the possibility of hosting US bases, one prospective scenario is that America backs Pakistan against the Taliban in the event that their tensions worsen in the coming future. It should be mentioned that Pakistan fired rockets9 across the border against the TTP on Saturday in response to terrorists killing seven Pakistani soldiers on Thursday. This development could signify the start of more muscular Pakistani anti-terrorist operations in Afghanistan, which the US might support.
That potential dynamic could contribute to increasingly troubled Taliban-Pakistani ties, which might in turn further complicate that war-torn country’s recovery. With or without speculative US bases in Pakistan, even just secret CIA ones, this scenario could serve American strategic interests in its own way even though Islamabad would be independently responding to terrorist threats emanating from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Iran would therefore do well to consider how it could most effectively ensure its interests there in that scenario.
The other scenario relevant to the Islamic Republic is if its own ties with Pakistan worsen in the coming future for whatever the reason may be. Possible causes include Iran simply being uncomfortable with its neighbor if its strategists conclude that it’s fallen under US influence (with or without the military takeover or US base scenarios); Islamabad possibly accusing Tehran of meddling in the context of its ongoing political crisis; and/or the ultra-sensitive Baloch issue once again coming to the forefront of their relations. Some additional words should be shared about the last-mentioned possibility.
Iran and Pakistan have previously accused one another of patronizing Baloch militants on the opposite side of the border. Occasional upticks in such violence in one another’s territory usually lead to these accusations being repeated, whether officially or informally through members of the media that are considered close to their country’s military-intelligence structures. It’s not the purpose of this piece to grant credence to either side’s claims against the other but only to draw attention to the possibility of this issue once again becoming an obstacle in their relations.
That scenario would be regionally destabilizing however it ends up possibly transpiring since it’s not in either country’s interests to see this happen but the US might hope to have it unfold in order to divide and rule these two neighbors. Iran and Pakistan should both be on high alert in case American intelligence agencies meddle in this ultra-sensitive issue. Under no circumstances must they allow this to happen since it could quickly catalyze a chain reaction of events that harms them both. Even if the issue naturally arises once again, it’s in Pakistan’s interests not to seek US assistance in any way whatsoever.
Generally speaking, whether post-PTI Pakistan is considered by Iran to be uncomfortably close to the US or not, these neighboring nations should do their utmost to ensure that relations remain stable and mutually beneficial in all respects. After all, they’re both close partners with China, which committed $60 billion to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC10, the flagship project of its Belt & Road Initiative [BRI]) and reportedly also committed upwards of $400 billion to Iran across the coming quarter-century as part of their 25-year strategic partnership pact that was agreed to last spring.
It’s in Iran’s, Pakistan’s, China’s, and the entire multipolar community’s objective interests to gradually integrate their economies through BRI11 so as to advance Beijing’s grand strategic vision of creating a community of common destiny for mankind (also known as the community of shared future). No matter how ideologically inclined the pro-US school of thought in the Pakistani Establishment might be which some speculated has just returned to policymaking prominence after former Prime Minister Khan’s ouster, they mustn’t consider compromising on this multilaterally beneficial vision.
Even so, the scenario of that happening regardless of the pretext also can’t be dismissed by Iran at this time either considering how much remains uncertain in that neighboring country given its escalating political tensions that have already led to related violence committed by official state representatives. In the event that the integration of their economies through BRI becomes politically unviable, then Iran would have to rely on achieving connectivity with China through Afghanistan and Central Asia, though the first-mentioned might become even less stable than it already is if Taliban-Pakistani tensions persist.
All things considered, Pakistan’s unexpected change of government creates enormous uncertainty for Iran, especially since it’s speculated per former Prime Minister Khan’s own claims that the new coalition authorities are under American influence. Until those accusations are clarified convincingly enough for Iran to conclude that there isn’t any truth to them, Tehran will likely remain suspicious of Islamabad. Any meaningful overtures between Pakistan and the US will also prompt serious concern from Iran, particularly if there’s any significant military component to them such as renewed rumors of US bases.
Pakistan’s political crisis might also snowball into a very serious national security one very soon if the current trajectory remains on course, which could lead to unpredictable military and humanitarian situations in that country in the worst-case scenario that Iran should also be prepared for just in case. In the event that this causes a worsening of relations between these neighboring countries, especially if the ultra-sensitive Baloch issue once again becomes an obstacle in their relations, then the subsequent chain reaction that this could catalyze might provoke international tensions that the US could exploit.
It’s sincerely hoped that Pakistan’s problems will be resolved in a purely peaceful manner as soon as possible and that the potential recalibration of its Eurasian balancing act in an American direction won’t be radical or lead to any regional suspicions about Islamabad’s intentions. The same is hoped for with respect to rising Taliban-Pakistani tensions too, which could result in mutually detrimental outcomes that the US could also exploit to divide and rule the broader region. The black swan event of former Prime Minister Khan’s contentious ouster hopefully won’t lead to any further instability for anyone.