Iran considers the ouster of former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, on April 9, 2022, a “regional setback” for its foreign policy amid a flood of new transformations around Iran and throughout the world that indicate Tehran will not reap many political gains in the coming days. The foreign policy approach of the former prime minister of Pakistan was somewhat compatible with his Iranian counterpart, thus sparking anger in Tehran over his removal from power. Media loyal to the regime in Tehran went so far as to describe his departure as a foreign “conspiracy.”
The extent of the “close theoretical alliance” between Iran and the former government of Imran Khan, as well as Iran’s dissatisfaction with his departure and the inauguration of Shehbaz Sharif in his place, can be seen by looking at how official and semi-official Iranian media covered these developments. The no-confidence vote against Khan undoubtedly represents a loss for the conservative Iranian government in particular, led by the current president, Ebrahim Raisi, and for Iran’s foreign policy approach in general. Iran was suspicious of Sharif’s election but tried, and continues to try, to gain his favor by quickly congratulating him on taking office, as well as expressing “hope” for further future cooperation between Iran and Islamabad.
The reasons for Iran’s concerns over the ouster of Imran Khan and the election of Shehbaz Sharif as the new prime minister can be understood in light of several factors, most notably the following:
1. Sharif’s potential rapprochement with the United States: The former Pakistani prime minister did not support close relations with the US and consistently criticized Washington’s policies in the region, both in Afghanistan and his country. Khan had called for the departure of US forces from Afghanistan and demanded a halt to US military strikes in Pakistan. Indeed, he held the US responsible for the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and the crises in his country, which he attributed to Islamabad’s close relationship and lengthy alliance with the US in the area of counterterrorism. US-Pakistani relations further deteriorated during Khan’s leadership of his country, following decades of close regional alliance between the two countries, especially in the context of the support given to Afghan fighters against the former Soviet presence in Afghanistan during the 1980’s, and after the events of September 11, 2001, when cooperation between the two sides reached an unprecedented level.
When Shehbaz Sharif became the new prime minister, concerns began to plague decision-makers in Tehran about this relationship, as Sharif is known to belong to the Muslim League in Islamabad, whose center-right orientation tends toward deeper relationships and cooperation with the US in particular and does not follow the same course vis-à-vis Russia, for example, as will be explained. Thus, in the coming days, Tehran anticipates further regional isolation.
2. Changing foreign policy vis-à-vis China and Russia: In contrast to Shehbaz Sharif’s tendency toward strengthening his country’s cooperation with Washington, for several reasons it does not appear that this approach will be repeated with Russia. First and foremost, the Russian-Ukrainian war will limit the new Pakistani prime minister’s options with regards to cooperation with either the US or Russia. We can see how the media in Tehran—specifically, shortly before the no-confidence vote against Khan and the April 11 election of Sharif—used this US-Pakistani antagonism in conjunction with Moscow’s rapprochement with Islamabad. At the same time, the US was accused of being behind Khan’s removal, with some describing it as a “conspiracy to overthrow him.”
In this light, Pakistan may turn to another option, which is to deepen ties with China, its most important regional ally. This may serve Tehran’s interests, which, for its part, may attempt to exploit the escalating differences between Washington and Beijing in the coming phase, especially as the latter seeks to assess possible courses for the Russian-Ukrainian war in order to manage its potential conflicts with Western countries in the Indo-Pacific region. In Tehran’s view, this option would be the most compatible with its interests, particularly given China’s aspiration to promote cooperation with countries in the region in the framework of its Belt and Road Initiative. In addition, expanding the scope of relations between China and Pakistan seems better to Iran than the recent trend toward heightened cooperation with Western nations, especially the US. Of note, Iranian media have highlighted statements from Sharif confirming “indissoluble” relations with China and Pakistan’s quest for “equitable” relations with the US.
3. Expanded cooperation between Pakistan and the Gulf states: Pakistan’s relations with the Gulf states are described as “strategic.” The UAE and Saudi Arabia were among the first countries to congratulate the new Pakistani prime minister, which is part and parcel of the strong and strategic nature of the relationships between Pakistan and the Gulf states. For example, Riyadh and Islamabad long ago deepened their cooperation at the economic, political, and military levels. Former Prime Minister Imran Khan did not support significant strengthening of ties between his country and Riyadh, but the new prime minister in Islamabad strongly welcomes such cooperation, which naturally may cause concern in Iran, as Tehran does not want such bilateral relations to progress.
4. Iran’s prefers to test the intentions of the new prime minister: It could be said that Iran will try to test the intentions of the new Pakistani prime minister in the coming phase. On April 14, Iran hastened to congratulate him upon taking office: in his congratulatory letter President Ebrahim Raisi stressed that “the Islamic Republic of Iran is always ready to strengthen cooperation with the Islamic Republic of Pakistan in all areas, even in this new stage,” and he expressed his hope that the next phase would lead to further cooperation between the two countries.
It might also be said that what may be prompting Iran to adopt this policy was Shehbaz Sharif’s eagerness to send two positive letters to Iran in recent days. On April 19, Sharif extended an official invitation to President Raisi to visit Islamabad in response to Iran’s letter of congratulations to him. Perhaps Raisi may actually make this visit to explore the possible courses of the relationship between Tehran and Islamabad in the coming phase. It is noteworthy that, while reviewing his new government’s plans, Sharif was keen to affirm his stance toward strengthening relations with Iran, saying in this regard, “We support strengthening brotherly and friendly relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran, especially in the area of trade.”
Reversal of Gains
In sum, Iran’s current concerns and discomfort have not lessened following the inauguration of the former chief minister of Punjab, Shehbaz Sharif, as prime minister of Pakistan. They stem mainly from the shift in Pakistan’s foreign alliances over the coming days of Sharif’s term. Sharif is not inclined to adopt his predecessor’s policies, and thus Iran will lose some of the political gains it enjoyed during the Imran Khan era. The Russian-Ukrainian war, the Taliban’s recent rise to power in Afghanistan, and Iran’s need for a figure like Imran Khan at this critical moment—all these issues are raising Iran’s anxiety level and may push it to attempt to placate the government of Shehbaz Sharif.