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Why the Pakistanis Are Vulnerable to Iran

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As U.S.-Pakistani relations have continued to deteriorate over the past year, particularly since the capture of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad this past May, there have been a barrage of recent events that have expedited the worsening of ties between the two nuclear powers. Relations soured remarkably after NATO strikes inadvertently killed 24 Pakistani soldiers this past November, creating a more ostensible wedge between the two countries. Pakistan immediately restricted NATO's access to supply routes, pulled out of a conference on Afghanistan, and immediately placed its relationship with the U.S. under review. Despite words of encouragement from senior leaders in both countries, there has been little thaw in the relationship ever since.

Regardless of how Americans view the relationship, the Pakistanis are a necessary component in any successful American foreign policy, and are vital in ensuring international peace and stability. Even after discounting the fact that Pakistan has the fastest growing nuclear arsenal in the world, a host of other issues, including a rapidly growing population that is already close to 200 million, limited natural resources, frequent natural disasters, widespread poverty, large-scale migration, poor access to education, amongst other debilitating issues, make Pakistan highly susceptible to social unrest and violence. Instability in the country has extensive ramifications that will undoubtedly influence its immediate neighbors in South Asia, with the potential to negatively impact the world at large, including key U.S. interests. A stable, internationally cooperative Pakistan is in the best interests of not only the United States, but for South Asia and the world.

Stabilizing Pakistan and ensuring that Islamabad is a meaningful contributor to the international community requires a concerted effort at addressing the massive economic problems that have plagued the country for decades. Amongst the most damaging and demoralizing for Pakistanis is their inadequate access to energy. Close to 40 percent of Pakistan does not have regular access to electricity, and blackouts have become a common occurrence, leading to riots and backlash against the government. The most recent uproar this past October saw Karachi and Islamabad set aflame by rioters frustrated with high energy prices and a general lack of access. It is estimated that insufficient energy supplies in Pakistan reduces the country's GDP by 3-4 percent annually. While the United States has provided billions of dollars in aid over the past decade, the overwhelming majority of those funds have been directed at supporting the Pakistani military in its efforts in combating Taliban militia, with an inadequate amount allocated to addressing Pakistan's potentially perilous energy crisis.

A potential savior for Pakistan has recently emerged in the form of Iran -- an ally that Pakistan does not need. In order to offset some of the recently instituted and widely expected Iranian embargos and international trade sanctions, Iran has offered Pakistan 80,000 barrels of oil per day on a deferred payment plan, allowing the country a reprieve from its energy deficiency.

Over the past two years, energy policy has become a focal point in Pakistani politics, as politicians are frequently pressured into subsidizing energy and fuel prices in order to prevent a struggling economy from spiraling out of control. Even with the state-fixed prices, blackouts are common, and ordinary Pakistanis struggle with meeting basic energy costs. The offer from Iran, therefore, is a tempting one, as Pakistan can use any energy assistance that it receives.

While the 80,000 barrel offer from Iran is under review, with a decision not expected until later this month, Pakistan has already announced plans to move forward with an Iran-Pakistan natural gas pipeline this week, even under the threat of U.S. sanctions. But years of misguided financial support from the United States and its NATO allies, coupled with increasing economic difficulties at home, validate Islamabad's decision -- they desperately need all of the economic support that they can get. Nonetheless, this is a dangerous for Pakistan. Increased cooperation with Iran, particularly at a time when Iran is condemned globally, can tip Pakistan into the world of international isolation.

An isolated Pakistan bodes well for nobody. The last thing that the world needs is an overpopulated, under-educated, nuclear power that is ostracized and required to fend for itself, as this only increases the possibility of political, social, and militaristic unrest. This is the path that the Pakistanis are headed towards, as they continue to amass a notorious global reputation. There have been serious doubts raised about their motives in the War on Terror -- Pakistani intelligence officials have been accused of simultaneously working closely with the Taliban while allying themselves with NATO -- and domestic politics have been consumed in chaotic clashes between different branches of government. As troublesome as the Pakistanis may seem now to American officials, a shunned, nuclear Pakistan will wreak even more havoc in South Asia, ultimately hindering the stability of Afghanistan and the security of India, as well as the region as a whole. Isolation.

As irksome as it may be, the world needs Pakistan to be on its side, and so steps need to be taken to ensure that the Pakistanis do not have to rely on Iran and further pigeon-hole themselves into a path that is both damaging for their interests as well as the world's. These are difficult decisions, but considering the circumstances, necessary ones.