For ages, imperial and colonial powers have followed the policy of “divide and rule” in the subjugation of alien people. Human beings have evolved and the world has changed over the past millennia, but we still see powers with expansionist ambitions employing this formula in the service of imperial goals. When Iran, after the Islamic revolution in 1979 was perceived as a threat to Western hegemony in the Persian Gulf region, Iraq under Saddam Hussein was encouraged to attack it. The decade-long Iran-Iraq war, in which Western powers supported Iraq, weakened both Iran and Iraq and neutralized any threat they possibly could have posed to Western interests in the Persian Gulf or to Israel. It also divided the Muslim world and weakened its ability to resist the Western powers’ hegemonic designs in the region.

The net result of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait was that it divided and weakened the Arab world besides destroying Iraq’s economic and military strength.Besides the Western powers, the real beneficiary of these two wars was Israel. The Arab willingness and capability to support the Palestinian freedom movement witnessed a marked dilution subsequently. The division of the Palestinian movement into different factions and their infighting furthered the Israeli agenda of consolidating its control over the Palestinian lands through ever expanding Jewish settlements. Consequently, there is little hope of a fair resolution of the Palestinian problem in the foreseeable future despite occasional US initiatives. Western support to the rebellion in Syria against the government of Bashar Assad also serves the same purpose of deepening these divisions and weakening the Arabs in general.

The US and other Western powers are also engaged in a well-planned campaign to pit Saudi Arabia and other Arab states of the Persian Gulf against Iran once again because of its alleged nuclear-weapon programme. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Western powers try to rope in Pakistan also by taking advantage of its close brotherly ties with Saudi Arabia. We should not under any circumstances lend our services to the fulfillment of this neo-colonial agenda. While maintaining friendly ties with both Iran and Saudi Arabia, we should try to promote understanding between them. The same principle of neutrality applies to the situation in Syria also. In accordance with our traditional policy, we should scrupulously avoid involvement in intra-Arab disputes. So any attempt to persuade us to send weapons or security personnel in support of one or the other party in the civil war in Syria must be categorically rejected by us.

One sees the same age-old policy of divide and rule closer to home in the context of our relations with Iran. It is not a secret that our support to the Taliban government in the 1990’s severely damaged Pakistan-Iran relations and created a gulf of mistrust between the two. The fall of the Taliban government provided an opportunity to the two countries to put the relationship back on track. Unfortunately, the desired progress in this direction was not achieved and the Pakistan-Iran relationship despite the advantages of historical ties, neighbourhood, vast potential for economic and commercial cooperation, and shared security interests lacks the traditional warmth. While the leaders of Pakistan and Iran must bear the primary responsibility for this failure, one also sees the hand of non-regional powers in aggravating differences and fomenting tensions between the two countries. These powers are also engaged in efforts to block avenues of cooperation between Pakistan and Iran for the furtherance of their own designs in the region.

American opposition to the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project, which is a must for meeting our long-term gas requirements, must be seen in this context. The alleged operations of some Sunni militant groups like Jundullah and Jaish al-Adal in Iranian Balochistan with bases in Pakistani Balochistan have been the cause of serious concern in Tehran. The statements by Iranian leaders and spokespersons about the recent kidnapping of some Iranian border guards by Jaish al-Adal should leave no doubt in our minds the seriousness with which the Iranian government views the activities of such groups. During my tenure as the Pakistan ambassador to Iran (1997-2003), I noticed the widespread impression amongst the Iranians that these militants had the clandestine support of Western intelligence agencies.

The planned departure of the ISAF troops from Afghanistan by the end of the current year, barring a residual force of 5000-10,000 American troops, is fraught with risks besides being an opportunity. The risk is that if, as appears likely, a full-fledged civil war starts in Afghanistan after American withdrawal, Pakistan and Iran may again be arrayed against each other because of their support to opposing Afghan groups as happened in the 1990’s. However, post-2014 Afghanistan also offers to the two countries an opportunity for the coordination of their Afghan policies in the interest of durable peace and stability in the country while refraining from interference in its internal affairs.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s forthcoming visit to Iran must be fully utilized for mutual understanding and cooperation on all these issues, whether relating to the domain of border security, the evolving situation in Afghanistan, economic and commercial cooperation both bilaterally and at the regional level within the framework of the ECO, and the security issues in the Persian Gulf region. Among other things, we must reiterate our determination to implement the Iran-Pakistan pipeline project in due course when our security, economic, and financial conditions so allow in the face of Western sanctions on Iran. Meanwhile, we must take full advantage of the various opportunities for mutual economic and commercial cooperation which are not affected by the Western sanctions. During Nawaz Sharif’s visit, it would be worthwhile for both sides to keep in mind that, as the historical evidence shows, the security and economic well-being of Pakistan and Iran are closely linked.

What applies to the conduct of Pakistan’s external relations is even more relevant to the management of our internal affairs. Unfortunately, we have now turned into a society deeply divided along sectarian, ideological, and political lines. These divisions offer opportunities to our enemies to fish in our troubled waters. This external threat is magnified in view of the lack of tolerance of opposing views and the tendency towards the use of violence to settle our differences. The considerations of national security, political stability, and economic well-being require that our political institutions and the military must operate in close coordination with each other. The military establishment must acknowledge the supremacy of the elected institutions of state and perform their official functions within the limits prescribed by law and the constitution. The country cannot afford another military take-over because of the deleterious effects of the previous military governments on its security, economic development, and political evolution.

The need for national unity must again be the supreme consideration in the resolution of the current tiff between the military establishment and a section of the media. Their differences, which were highlighted in the wake of the condemnable assassination attempt on Hamid Mir, must again be resolved through dialogue and within the bounds of law. No single institution of the state has the authority to define Pakistan’s national interests. This task must be performed by the elected government of the country in close consultations with the various state institutions.

 The writer is a retired ambassador and the president of the Lahore Council for World Affairs.