Since 2015, the deteriorating relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran—the self-appointed vanguards of Sunni and Shia Islam, respectively—has brought forth a new cold war in the Middle East. Pakistan has spent decades striking a delicate balance between the two countries, but Riyadh’s and Tehran’s increasingly divergent interests are making it difficult to avoid choosing sides. This report examines the factors driving Islamabad’s foreign policy toward Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as the implications for the United States in South Asia and the Middle East.


  • For decades, Pakistan has hewed closer to Saudi Arabia than to Iran, but successive Pakistani civilian and military leaders have pursued a more even-keeled foreign policy to avoid being perceived as pro-Saudi and anti-Iranian.
  • In 2015, Pakistan remained neutral as a Saudi-led coalition embarked on a military campaign in Yemen against Iran-aligned Houthis. Subsequent Pakistani moves highlighted its sensitivity to Saudi perceptions of insecurity.
  • Following the worsening in Saudi-Iranian relations in January 2016 after Saudi Arabia’s execution of a prominent Shia sheikh, Pakistan’s attempts at shuttle diplomacy and mediation were clear evidence of its interest in avoiding a regional cold war in the Middle East.
  • As much as Pakistan’s civilian leaders have tried to avoid an overtly public tilt in the country’s foreign policy toward Saudi Arabia, close military and economic ties ensure that Pakistan likely would choose Saudi Arabia over Iran, should it be forced to pick sides.
  • Economic ties between Iran and Pakistan have flourished since the conclusion of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear program in 2015. However, the US decision to withdraw from the agreement threatens to destabilize the Iran-Pakistan relationship.
  • Even as Pakistan has maintained its independence in light of Saudi requests with regard to Yemen, it has been less willing to apply diplomatic leverage on Saudi Arabia in an attempt to shape its regional calculus in the Middle East.

About the Report

This report examines the factors that have influenced Pakistan’s approach to navigating the ever-sharpening geopolitical split between Iran and Saudi Arabia since 2015. Supported by USIP’s Asia Center, the report examines factors driving Islamabad’s foreign policy toward Tehran and Riyadh and discusses the implications for the United States in South Asia and the Middle East.

About the Author

Ankit Panda is a senior editor at The Diplomat and an adjunct senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists. A graduate of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, his writing has appeared in the New York Times, Politico, and War on the Rocks.

Related Publications

A Year After Soleimani Strike, Iraq Bears the Brunt of U.S.-Iran Tensions

A Year After Soleimani Strike, Iraq Bears the Brunt of U.S.-Iran Tensions

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

By: Dr. Elie Abouaoun; Sarhang Hamasaeed

The January 3, 2020 U.S. drone strike that killed powerful Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani on Iraqi soil marked an escalation in already simmering U.S.-Iran tensions. For Iraqi leaders, the Soleimani strike exacerbated an already challenging balancing act in maintaining Baghdad’s relationships with the United States and Iran, with whom it shares a long border and religious and social ties. During the past tumultuous year for Iraq, U.S. forces and Iranian-allied armed groups engaged in tit-for-tat attacks in Iraq. USIP’s Elie Abouaoun and Sarhang Hamasaeed look at how U.S.-Iran tensions played out last year in Iraq and the region and if the incoming U.S. administration, and its desire to reengage in nuclear talks with Iran, could help allay the impact on Iraq.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Conflict Analysis & Prevention

Nuclear Diplomacy with Iran: What’s Ahead for the Biden Administration?

Nuclear Diplomacy with Iran: What’s Ahead for the Biden Administration?

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

By: Robin Wright

Of all the pressing issues in the volatile Middle East—wars in Syria, Yemen and Libya, unstable Iraq, imploding Lebanon, and the 10,000 ISIS fighters and other al-Qaida franchises still on the loose—the most pressing for President-elect Joe Biden will be Iran’s controversial nuclear program. He has repeatedly promised to rejoin the nuclear deal, brokered by the world’s six major powers in 2015, which Donald Trump pulled out of in 2018.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Mediation, Negotiation & Dialogue

The Current Situation in Iran

The Current Situation in Iran

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

For decades, Iran has vexed the international community. It introduced Islam as a form of governance in 1979 and has supported militants abroad and defied international norms. In May 2018, the Trump administration withdrew from the 2015 nuclear agreement negotiated by six world powers and Iran. The administration argued that the deal did not adequately curb Tehran’s nuclear program or address its missile program, human rights abuses, and support for terror.

Type: Fact Sheet

View All Publications