Backed by China, Iran Vies with Saudis for Influence in Imran Khan’s Pakistan

For the first time in the Indian subcontinent’s history, a prime minister, Imran Khan, owes his election to the backing of China, which also happens to be a close ally of the Shiite Republic of Iran. Sunni-Wahabi Saudi Arabia has nonetheless stepped up to the challenge and seeks influence in the new Islamabad.

In his victory speech this month, Khan declared, “Our neighbor is China, we will further strengthen our relations with it.” He lauded the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (OPEC) under construction across Pakistan (originally valued at $62 billion), initiated by Beijing as “giving us a chance to bring in investments.”

Beijing has followed up with assistance to the post-election Khan government of $2 billion in loans to keep its economy from falling apart. With relations between Pakistan and President Donald Trump’s administration at rock bottom, the new prime minister is doubly dependent on China for financial support and Xi Jinping will not think twice before using his leverage to draw new Pakistani administration into the Iranian orbit to displace his predecessor Nawaz Sharif’s long friendship with Riyadh.

Notwithstanding Imran Khan pledge in his victory speech to foster ties and understanding with Riyadh, he will find it hard to resist the pull of a pro-Iranian orientation in view of certain considerations:

  1. Concern that after achieving the dismantlement or reduction of North Korea’s and Iran’s nuclear capabilities (as yet a remote prospect) US President Donald Trump will turn his attention to the Pakistani nuclear program and its ability to build a hydrogen bomb.
  2. Because he depends on China for Pakistan’s bread and butter, he is caught up in the need to side with Beijing’s efforts to help Tehran beat US sanctions, rather than joining Riyadh, President Trump’s partner in the struggle against Tehran.
  3. Khan’s Justice Party led the campaign against acceding to Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman’s demand to send over a Pakistani army unit to fight for the Saudi-UAE coalition in Yemen. Only when Riyadh threatened to cut off aid, did Islamabad finally agree to send a small group of military advisers to the Yemen war. The Saud-backed Islamic Development Bank is expected to grant Pakistan a roughly $4 billion loan to help alleviate the country’s grave balance of payments problem. This loan would be on top of a $4 billion bailout package the Khan government is seeking from the International Monetary Fund. Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves dwindled in the past year to the point that the country subsists on Chinese loans. Its currency was devalued four times this year.
  4. Imran Khan is strongly anti-Israel and holds to the view that the centers of power in the West – the US and Europe – are controlled by Jews (although his first wife Jemima Goldsmith was a British heiress of Jewish descent). He therefore disapproves of the friendship the US and Israel have developed with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Republic – an antipathy which he shares with Tehran and which distances him from the two leading Arab Gulf powers.
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