The foreign policies of both Iran and Pakistan over the past half century have incorporated repeated challenges to the international system that suggest profound dissatisfaction on the parts of the ruling elites in each state going far deeper than individual personalities, parties, or ideologies. This in turn suggests that such frequently recommended (in the West) solutions as “regime change,” creating “democracy,” or taking political power from the military and passing it to civilians will not by themselves resolve this dissatisfaction.
One issue is security. Each state has typically perceived itself as facing significant security threats. As is not uncommon in international affairs, many of the perceived threats were caused or inflamed by the behavior of the threatened state; each state of course finds its own guilt hard to see, given the degree to which real threats have in fact existed independent of any such guilt. Regardless, the security threats have been genuine.
Iranian Security Concerns.
The U.S. Threat. Iran has repeatedly been threatened by the U.S.: the U.S. overthrew Iran’s first attempt at a democratic government in the early 1950’s in order to prevent Iran from taking control over its oil export prices. Following Saddam Hussein’s invasion, the U.S. provided Saddam with significant military support in order to prevent an Iranian victory. Iran has also repeatedly evinced concern over its neighbors, particularly Iraq but also over Persian Gulf security more broadly. Its concern with Iraq today is not with an Iraqi invasion, of course, but with either a U.S. invasion from Iraq or the spread of Iraqi domestic chaos into Iran. The conditions may be grossly different, but Iraq remains a major security concern for Tehran.
The Persian Gulf Threat. Since Iran’s economy is founded on the export of oil through Persian Gulf waters militarily dominated by the U.S. and a Saudi state whose military establishment and spending dwarf those of Iran, Persian Gulf security is a second constant concern for Tehran. Both the legacy of Gulf Arab support for Saddam’s invasion of Iran and Khomenei’s unsettling pan-Shi’ite stance continue to plague efforts to settle regional relations.
The Afghan Threat. Afghanistan has also repeatedly been a security concern. The Soviet invasion surely must have reminded Iranians of the Tsarist threat to Iran and the post-WWII Soviet effort to take over, at the very least, northern Iran. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was defeated, the rise of the radical Sunni Taliban led to severe tensions. Today, the threat from Afghanistan is two-fold: on one hand, the huge U.S. military establishment there leaves Iran surrounded by U.S. forces that, given Bush Administration rhetoric and the concerted Israeli effort over the last decade to inflame U.S.-Iranian relations, Iran must assume to be extremely hostile; on the other hand, the explosive growth in the power of Afghan drug gangs threatens to undermine Iranian society with an epidemic of illegal narcotics flowing across a porous Afghan-Iranian border.
The Baluchi Threat. Finally, Pakistani Baluchi demands for better treatment and the brutal Pakistani suppression of their civil rights raise the specter of unrest among Baluchis on the Iranian side of the Iranian-Pakistani border.
Pakistani Security Concerns.
The Indian Threat. Pakistan has been equally concerned over its security, given the overwhelming military superiority of India. Although Pakistan lost its eastern half as the result of the unjust treatment of Bengalis by the West Pakistan military and civilian elite, to blame the Pakistani civil war on India has become dogma in (West) Pakistan, which only fuels the fire of insecurity vis-à-vis New Delhi. The repeated and very real threats of war, even nuclear war, with India may have originated in Pakistani provocations in Kashmir (e.g., the forming of terrorist groups and Musharraf’s Kargil adventure). The war threats may also be exploited by the Pakistani military to justify its political control. Nevertheless, the implicit threat posed by New Delhi’s aggressive pursuit of overwhelming military superiority, uncompromising repression of Kashmiri political desires since Nehru’s death, and harsh treatment of Kashmiris only serve to fuel Pakistani security concerns.
The Domestic Ethnic Threat. In addition, Pakistan is fighting a Baluchi insurgency in the west and a Taliban insurgency in the north, with both being inflamed by Pakistani army heavy-handedness.
A second issue, connected to but distinct from security, is status. States, or more properly, regimes seek status as individuals do and tend to be extremely sensitive to gaps between their size and the status they are accorded.
Iranian Status Concerns.
Iran wants regional status befitting its history and size. It also sees acquisition of regional status as a means of breaking out of isolation and enhancing its security. For that reason, insecurity feeds the desire to gain higher regional status, a tough challenge since it means status in the eyes of either Sunni Arabs or Sunni Pakistanis. Defending the rights of Palestinians is one obvious option for gaining support among Arab populations, but that tends to worsen relations with conservative Arab regimes trying to avoid tension with Israel. Another option is to pose as defender of Islam, also a tough challenge since the mostly Sunni Arabs do not exactly see Shi’ite Iran as their natural leader. Iran has tried, and currently is putting considerable emphasis on, both options, with, so far, only modest success. Iran’s failure to gain the status it believes it deserves is by no means good news for its opponents: a frustrated, alienated Iran will be much more difficult to deal with than one that sees benefits flowing from cooperation with the powers that be. The more Iran is isolated, the more many of Iran’s conservatives will be likely to focus on improving ties with other regional actors who are similarly isolated and frustrated. The West has paid heavily for ignoring this commonsense principle.
Pakistani Status Concerns.
For Pakistan, regional status seems if anything even more closely ties to security concerns. Geographically, Pakistani elites aspire to regional leadership in, at a minimum, Kashmir and Afghanistan, in great part to gain buffer zones against India. Ideologically, Pakistani elites want close ties to Saudi Arabia and over the past three decades have opened the doors ever wider to Saudi cultural, educational, and religious influence at the same time that Saudi money has flowed to Pakistan in return for Pakistani nuclear knowledge. Beyond the monetary value of nuclear technology exports, being the most technically advanced Moslem state also confers on Pakistan a much-desired status that it otherwise would have no hope of attaining.
In brief, both for reasons of national security and regional status, which in itself enhances security, Iran and Pakistan have consistently focused their foreign policy over the last half century on enhancing both security and regional status. Although Washington may see these two states in terms of U.S.-Iranian or U.S.-Pakistani relations, that relationship has never been the foundation of Iranian or Pakistani foreign policy. This misperception may have much to do with the difficulties Washington has had in eliciting the type of behavior it desires from those two countries: in brief, the carrots and sticks employed by Washington have not been those most relevant to the primary concerns of Pakistan and Iran. If Washington indeed wants Iran and Pakistan to moderate--not to mention renounce—the development of nuclear arms, nuclear proliferation, and support of insurgencies, then Washington will have to pay more attention to Iranian and Pakistani core concerns. It will have to show Iran and Pakistan that they can achieve progress on their core concerns by working within the system rather than by challenging it.
It would not be hard to make the argument that both countries could enhance their security by pursuing less challenging policies. Putting greater effort into developing their economies and avoiding exacerbating ties with other countries might well give Iran and Pakistan both more security and more status over the long run, but they are by no means alone in having politicians who cannot see past their own personal times in office. Moreover, neither state has in fact been given many attractive options. The fact is that the elites in each country consistently see these measures as necessary, which raises the question of the degree to which such attitudes are a function of the behavior of Washington.
Threats against Iranian national security by Washington and Tel Aviv are pushing Iranian defense policy in a direction that those capitals profess to dislike and to be trying to prevent.
Instead of criticizing Tehran for becoming more proactive and developing long-range missiles and asymmetric warfare capabilities, those capitals might ask themselves to what extent their own policies are contributing to these Iranian policies.
The way to persuade Tehran to give up supporting anti-Israeli violence by Hezballah and Palestinian insurgents is a two-fold approach of simultaneous 1) addressing Lebanese and Palestinian concerns in order to minimize their need to fight Israel and 2) opening the door to participation in regional affairs by Iran.
Similarly, Washington’s pressure on Pakistan to suppress violence in Kashmir and Afghanistan by its radical agents cannot logically be expected to work unless it addresses Pakistan’s concerns. To address Pakistan’s concerns, the pressure needs to be paired with steps to alleviate Pakistani security concerns. In that context, making the government more democratic and returning the Pakistani military to its barracks might well be valuable implementation steps but do not represent magic bullets. In other words, domestic Pakistani reforms (“free” from the U.S. perspective because they require no concessions by the U.S.), regardless of their nature, will not suffice to address international issues of concern to Pakistan: logically, international concerns must be met by changes in the international environment. That will entail changes in the behavior of both New Delhi and Washington.
Washington’s focus on individuals, parties, religious groups implies that eliminating such individuals, parties, or religious groups would resolve the issue. But since the security and status concerns of Iran and Pakistan have remained the same for half a century, the logical route to persuading Iran and Pakistan to modify their behavior would be to address those concerns. Isolating countries, labeling them as evil, and refusing to negotiate with them unless they make the key concessions in advance (i.e., surrender first, then “talk”) is not likely to evoke cooperation. Overtly pressuring governments to turn on their own agents without addressing the concerns those agents were created to take care of is also not likely to evoke cooperation. The former is Washington’s Iran policy, the latter Washington’s Pakistan policy.
Recent history gives both countries good reason for thinking that for security they must depend on themselves. This perspective makes nuclear capabilities and asymmetric warfare (e.g., Iran supporting Hezballah and certain Palestinian parties, Pakistan supporting the Taliban and insurgency in Kashmir) tempting methods of leveling the playing field against opponents that will remain vastly superior in terms of conventional military capabilities.
Cornered, either of these states has the capacity to become very dangerous. Iran has been the obsession of some in the West for several years, while Pakistan essentially burned like a slow lava flow, reassuringly blackened on the surface but red-hot underneath. In fact, the Pakistani nuclear technology export program of the last two decades was probably far more dangerous to the world than anything post-Shah Iran ever attempted. Whatever the current status of that program of deception, it is not hard to imagine others scenarios that would quickly turn Pakistan into a major global headache. If treated with scorn, under either military dictatorship or a democratic civilian administration, Pakistan’s ties to the West could very quickly collapse, given the popular resentment over U.S.-supported dictatorship, the near-disastrous state of the standard of living of most of the population, and the resentment over U.S. pressure to conduct a vigorous military campaign against Islamic activists.
To turn any large country into a supporter of the global political system, it must be given a stake in that system. Today, both Iran and Pakistan seem condemned to poverty by an unresponsive, if not irrationally hostile, international system. Moreover, Iran, at least, is surrounded by enemies and ostracized from regional diplomacy. Given the military superiority of India, Pakistan—rightly or wrongly—may well feel isolated as well. Each can be forgiven for perceiving that it really doesn’t have a very big stake in the current international system. And that endangers everyone else’s security.