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The US continues to use sanctions against developing nations for having the ‘wrong’ kind of relations

May 6, 2024 at 9:08 am

Commuters ride past a welcoming billboard displaying images of the Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, along a street in Lahore on April 22, 2024 [ARIF ALI/AFP via Getty Images]

When Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visited Pakistan last month, the two neighbours essentially opened the door to swift reconciliation months after they both conducted light strikes on each other’s territories and suffered a diplomatic fallout.

Aside from presenting an opportunity for Islamabad to further express its condemnation of Israel’s ongoing genocide in the Gaza Strip – showing the international community and its own population that Pakistan is still somewhat concerned with the issue and the region – the visit also reaffirmed guarantees of security cooperation along its troubled shared border with Iran and resulted in an agreement to boost bilateral trade to $10 billion in the next five years.

It was those promises of a security partnership and economic revival that were particularly in Pakistan’s vital interests. At a time when the South Asian state is surrounded on almost all its borders by hostile or rival states, and has been largely economically isolated in the region in recent years, a troubled relationship with Iran was the last thing it needed.

The reconciliation also enabled the potential resumption of the major gas pipeline construction between the two countries, with Islamabad having abandoned its side of the project last year directly due to the threat of possible sanctions against it by the United States. Now, Pakistan sees a new light at the end of the tunnel in regards to the energy sector, hoping to secure the urgent and much-needed commodity which it so lacks, and which its population suffers from on a daily basis.

But standing guard at the gate of reconciliation is the US, which is closely watching the developments and assessing what action to take if Pakistan and Iran grow too close.

Following Raisi’s visit and the striking of the agreements between the Pakistani and Iranian leadership, the US State Department directly warned Islamabad of the risk of incurring sanctions if it engages in deals with Tehran, with spokesperson Vedant Patel stating during a press briefing that “We advise anyone considering business deals with Iran to be aware of the potential risk of sanctions. But ultimately, the government of Pakistan can speak to their own foreign policy pursuits”.

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That itself is seemingly the primary stumbling block in the South Asian country’s quest – although divided and often corrupted – for the further development of its infrastructure and industries. What is notable is that the US’s threat of sanctions is not based on complex political demands regarding the military establishment’s grip on power, the tightening of restrictions on freedom of speech, or the imprisonment of dissidents.

No, the US is not so concerned with those things unless they clash with its own interests or fall into a category of potential leverage. What Washington is apparently most concerned with is the burgeoning relationship between the two neighbours in the region and the fact that one of those countries is Iran.

Those concerns can be interpreted in a variety of ways, including as a fear that Pakistan could yet be another potential ally of Iran in the region, which is largely amusing due to the fact that both countries and their establishments generally hold an innate distrust toward each other, knowing that they simply cooperate out of self-interest rather than a solid shared alliance.

What the US’s threats demonstrate most, however, is that it continues to use sanctions as a wide-ranging stick with which to punish any for practising their own foreign policy initiatives, even if those initiatives are removed from politics and are carried out almost solely for the benefit of civil populations.

If it were to impose sanctions on political figures and trade entities for being directly tied with the Syria’s regime under president Bashar al-Assad over its ongoing huan rights violations and torture, or on militia leaders participating in captagon smuggling, for example, that is understandable even if one does not agree with those measures. To impose sanctions solely for having necessary trade and energy cooperation with Iran is an entirely different thing, though.

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Relations with Iran – or any adversary to Washington – are also not necessarily a precursor to sanctions imposed by the US or other Western nations, as numerous countries in the international community continue to maintain trade, diplomatic, and energy ties with Tehran while hardly subject to such measures.

Gulf states present a clear example, with the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) exports to Iran exceeding $20 billion over the past year – double of what Pakistan intends to achieve – and Saudi Arabia has advanced its economic cooperation with Iran ever since their recent rapprochement. EU nations also conduct trade with the country, Germany being the bloc’s largest trading partner.

Even in the energy sector, there are a myriad of countries that import oil or natural gas from Iran, including Iraq, Kuwait, Turkiye, and India. Yet sanctions are not imposed upon those countries, either because they are allies of the US or because they have not yet drawn the ire of the State Department.

It is a perfectly logical step for a country, especially in the same common region, to have and expand ties with Tehran as a vital trade and energy partner, excluding politics. That apparently does not count for Islamabad, however, likely because it lacks the diplomatic prowess to properly defend its position.

So far, there has not been any sign on whether Pakistan will again pull out of the pipeline project or other initiatives with Iran, but what is clear is that the US has its sights set on the reconciliation between the two neighbours, is closely monitoring developments in the near future, and seems only too glad to sacrifice the wellbeing of civilian populations in developing countries and stunt their development simply for political rivalries.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.