Iran and Pakistan


I talked with the president at one of those fundraisers some months back, and I asked him, “What keeps you up at night?”

And he said, “Everything. Everything that gets to my desk is a critical mass. If it gets to my desk, then no one else could have handled it.” So I said, “So what’s the one that keeps you up at night?”

He goes, “There are quite a few.”

So I go, “What’s the one? Period.”

And he says, “Pakistan.”

-George Clooney, 2011

I recently finished a couple of books – A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind and Pakistan: A Hard Country. Noticing a lot of striking differences between the two neighboring countries Iran and Pakistan, particularly when factoring in the misinformed common wisdom about each nation, I decided to put together a comparative study on these two Islamic powers, because apparently that’s the kind of thing I do for fun.

Both nations are fascinating remnants of massive empires, and my quick survey begs the question – which of these countries has the best outlook, which can be a positive force in the world, and which should the international community be most concerned about? As opinions stand at the moment, seems we might have it backwards.

If we’re worried about an Islamic extremism and nuclear threat in the Middle East, why is so much focus on Iran and so little on Pakistan, a nation that’s already nuclear and a haven to religious extremists? Perhaps cultural heritage and tradition drives Western attitudes? Perhaps recent history? Perhaps an outdated, post-Cold-War, ideological foreign policy vision of global hegemony?

First, let’s look at some of the demographics and history of Iran and Pakistan:


Category Iran Pakistan USA (for comparison)
Area 1.6M sq km 0.8M sq km 9.8M sq km
Population 80.8M (19th) 196.2M (7th) 318.9M (4th)
Largest ethnic group Persian (61%) Punjabi (45%) white (80%)
Largest religious group Shia Muslim (95%) Sunni Muslim (90%) Protestant Christian (51.3%)
Most spoken language Persian (53%) Punjabi (48%) English (82.1%)
Median age 28.3 22.6 37.6
Life expectancy 71 67 80
Literacy 85% 54.9% 99%
GDP $987 billion $574 billion $16.72 trillion
GDP per capita $12,800 $3,100 $52,800
GINI 44.5 30.6 45

Source: CIA World Factbook

Pakistan is the second-largest Islamic nation in the world (after Indonesia). More Muslims live in Pakistan and India than the entire Middle East and North Africa. By comparison, Iran has half the population of Pakistan. Both are diverse nations (in comparison with Western countries), but Iran is a bit more homogenous, with a ruling Persian class and minorities of Kurds, Balochis, and others. Pakistan, meanwhile, is like 4-5 nations crammed together – Punjabis, Pashtun, Sindhi, Balochi, and many others who fled India after separation. The official government languages – Urdu and English – are spoken by just 8% of the population.

Nevertheless, Iran has a healthier economy, thanks in large part to its oil-rich coastlines. It is also a generally healthier and less dangerous country, and one in which citizens get a high level of education. In Pakistan, just over half the population over 15 years old can read or write (and the numbers skew toward men but are beginning to even out).

As for religion, Iran is 95% Shia, but is tolerant of its Sufi, Christian and Jewish minorities. Pakistan is 90% Sunni, though it’s important to note that Sunni Islam is not as monolithic as the Shia tradition. The different ethnic groups across Pakistan practice many forms of Islam and even blend in local traditions.


Along with Turkey, Iran and Pakistan comprise the remnants of the storied Gunpowder Empires. The Persian Empire stretches back nearly to the beginning of history. Some even believe antagonistic Western attitudes toward Iran stem from the Greeks’ portrayal of Persian invaders. But the Persians were not barbarians, as the Greeks called them. They were an enlightened and sophisticated empire for their time. Over 2,000+ years, Persian religious tolerance and diversity has given rise to many religious traditions, including Madzaism, Zoroastrianism, Magism (religious system of the Magi), Mithraism (which predates Christianity, and whose founder’s origin story, born to a virgin mother on Dec. 25, sounds a lot like Jesus of Nazareth), Manichaeism (a strict, prudish tradition which influenced Christianity through Augustine), Shi’ism and Sufism. Persian poetry and literature is among the most cherished in the world.

In the oft-invaded Indus valley, kingdoms of all different stripes have held power – Hindus, Greeks, Mongols, Sikhs, Afghans, and more. It wasn’t until the Arab conquest in the late 7th century that Sunni tradition came to the area. This ultimately gave rise to the Mughals, who ruled on and off for 500 years (often trading off with the Persians). Mughal rulers had a much harder time keeping an empire together, given the large number of tribes and cultures that converged on the area.

However, both peoples met a common enemy in the 1700s – the British. The Indian subcontinent was colonized wholly by the British, and while Persians held their own, British influence and claims to resources dominated a weakened Persian empire, rivaled only by Russian land-grabs in the north. Only in the mid-20th century did each nation throw off colonial rule and exploitation of resources, and in each instance, it has birthed suspicion, resentment and isolationism toward the Western world. Both gained full autonomy via religious-nationalist movements, though Pakistan did so with support from the West against a socialistic India, while Iran threw off a CIA-propped dictator who had lost touch with the Persian people.

Government and people

Today Iran is governed by totalitarian Islamic regime, one which is pursuing a nuclear power program, and potentially nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, Pakistan is a nominally secular, nominally cooperative Western ally that already has nuclear weapons. On top of that, it is weak, corrupt and mildly paranoid. The only institution that seems to function well is the military, and most believe the military is almost always truly in control.

All the while, neither ruling government reflects the attitudes of the people under its rule. Iran’s homogenous Shia population is increasingly secular and Western-oriented, valuing education, enlightenment, equality and advancement. Pakistan’s inhabitants are incredibly diverse, ethnically and religiously. Many have no love for Western powers, especially the United States, and, particularly in the frontier tribal areas, their belief and judicial systems are based not on law but on honor and retribution. Some areas have much sympathy for the Pakistani Taliban, which is viewed in Pakistan as no worse than the corrupt police and army forces.

Furthermore, Pakistan has a higher instance of fervent extremists who have no interest in a liberalized society. It’s somewhat ironic that Iran experienced an Islamic revolution and Pakistan hasn’t. Iran is overwhelmingly Shia, and while religious, its people are culturally rooted in education, equality, inclusion of cultural diversity, collaboration of ideas, and even classical Greek thought. In Pakistan many more strive for such a system, but the country is mostly a loose, heterogeneous confederation of tribes and peoples. Even if a fundamentalist-extremist group could gain a small level of popularity, it wouldn’t be accepted by the majority of the diverse, different, conflicting, blurred forms of religion across Pakistan.

As a whole, both Pakistanis and Iranians reject the kind of Sunni Islamic and Wahhabist extremism seen in the Arab world. This is true of their governments, too. They would both prefer to be much more like that shining example of Islamic modernity, Turkey. Iran has been able to fashion a modern, albeit flawed and autocratic form of government, and its evolution has been more natural once western influence was cast aside. Pakistan, meanwhile, has inherited British Common Law from its colonial days, which have proven to be institutions that don’t translate to the traditions and culture of the area, and thus are likely to be ignored, corrupted, and used for ill ends and personal gain (not that tribal justice is a desirable system). In truth, both states are deeply scarred by British Imperialism/American hegemony, institutions thrust upon them that were culturally alien, exploitative and humiliating.

What do Iranians want?

Seems to be the million-dollar question these days, right? Do they want a nuclear weapon? Do they want to be allies with the West? Do they want a war with Israel?

At the core, I think Iranians simply want a little respect and security. This is not an expansionist regime. Sure, they tend to influence regional powers toward their will (Assad, Shia Iraq), but often only to buffer themselves from the the West, the Saudis, Israel, etc. It would seem, given their history and their current economic, foreign and domestic politics, that both Iran’s leaders and people want stability and security. The people want to be free to express themselves, travel, and make a living in a healthy economy. The government wants protection against intrusions from the US, Israel, Russia, Afghanistan, and terrorists. Religious interest don’t really seem to come into play when we get real about it.

Iran appears in the midst of an existential crisis. Thirty years into the revolution, things haven’t exactly panned out – they’re isolated, economically stagnant, and under constant threat of war. The Green Revolution fizzled, but the sentiment remains – something needs to change in Iran so they can participate fully in the world community.

What do Pakistanis want?

Kashmir. Security from India, their greatest enemy. This isn’t a tough nut to crack. In fact, this explains a lot of Pakistan’s current policies. Ever since the Soviets left Afghanistan in a power vacuum, Pakistan has been implicitly supportive of the Taliban, because a Pakistan-reliant Taliban ruling over the northern border is better than a Norther Alliance allied with India ruling the northern border. Tolerance of Taliban is not based in agreement on beliefs but on security concerns.

But Pakistanis also want to be left alone. They feel betrayed by Americans, who have forced them to fight extremists but haven’t given them enough resources to do so, and have made them alienate their own people. They feel sold out by the West because the West demands they fall in line even while it falls over itself to be friendly with India. The government is tired of being seen as a puppet state, and the people are tired of having to defer to western requests.

Pakistan has an even larger looming enemy, one literally within its own soil. With so many people crammed into such a small area, Pakistan faces ecological disaster in the 21st century. Rivers are polluted and/or drying up. What little arable land there was is being developed or turning into desert. Waste removal is a public health disaster, even without considering the incompetent local governments. And many don’t even realize the level of damage that’s being done because education and healthcare levels are so low. Pakistan thinks its biggest threats come from across the Indian border. But political instability is more likely to come from the next catastrophic drought or monsoon.

Which is a bigger threat to the world?

Arguably, Iran wants a nuclear weapon. They say they don’t, but they insist on their right to do it if they want to. On the other hand, Iran wants western values and systems in their own making. If they truly want the former, it’s so they can have the latter. It would seem imperative on the West to help them find stability and security without a nuclear weapon. Iran is only as much of a threat as the world makes it – constant beating of the war drum by Israel, Saudi Arabia, Russia, ISIS and even some in the US don’t help the cause.

Meanwhile, Pakistan isn’t cohesive or resourceful enough to do any damage to the world at large. Their harboring of terrorists and extremists is strategic, not ideological. But it is reprehensibly nonetheless, and the proximity of real, accessible weapons of mass destruction is terrifying. Pakistan needs to face a coming demographic and ecological threat. Imagine a flood that causes local populations to starve and revolt, allowing extremists to grab both power and launch codes for nuclear weapons. There just doesn’t seem to be a comparable scenario of this level of horror possible in Iran at the moment.

What should we do?

Arguably, the biggest threat comes in the form of provocation and meddling by Western allies, breeding resentment toward the West, and not allowing these two countries to build their own institutions. Pressure both nations to reign in and combat extremism, sure, but don’t punish all people for the actions of fringe elements (whether those be radicals in the hinterlands of Waziristan or cunning heads of state in Tehran).

Taking hard-line stances against Iran, like Israel and Saudi Arabia have done, won’t help. Sunni Islamists (ISIS, Hamas, Somalia, Yemen) are the most radical extremists elements at the moment, and based on religious belief have at least some sympathies from the Saudis. The US is about to leave Afghanistan, and we need allies in the region who can help us support a legitimate and stable government. The Iraqi parliament needs some allies in its ongoing sectarian war. The Kurds are pushing for independence and will need support in the area. Putin and Russia have gone off the deep end, and have been no friends to Muslims in Georgia and other Caspian states, including Iran. Despite the differences and deserved suspicion, the West currently seems to have a lot of common goals with the Shia government of Iran and its liberalizing people, if we can come to a place of mutual trust.

Pakistan, meanwhile, has reluctantly fought the Taliban, polarizing its diverse population and increasing violence within its borders. But it may never fully support an end to Talibani extremism, because it needs that buffer from America or India in Afghanistan. In addition, Pakistan sees itself as a huge ally of China (mostly because they also oppose Indian power), and if push came to shove, they’d support the Chinese over the United States.

So what does the West do? Honestly, nothing. Get out. Get out of Afghanistan, try to warm relations with Iran, try to keep Pakistani relations open, but remain suspicious.

Use Pakistan’s relationships with the Taliban and Pashtuns to broker power sharing and anti-terror measures in Afghanistan. Then stop meddling and force them to sort it out themselves. Let Pakistan and India get back to looking foolish in Kashmir.

With Iran, get a nuclear deal, then relax sanctions. Get some assurances about Israel, so Israel can stop freaking out about empty threats from the Ayatollah and lose the hard-line attitude that prevents a Palestinian peace deal. Partner against Islamic extremism in Middle East and central Asia. Stronger relations with Iran make us stronger against Saudi Arabia, which, dare I remind everyone is the source of Wahhabist fundamentalism that bred ISIS, al-Qaeda and the 9/11 hijackers.

And, please, send no more US troops to the Middle East. To those who say the world will go to hell in a hand basket without the US there, I’ll remind you that our involvement only ever seems to expedite the trip to hell. The West needs to reconsider its stances toward Iran and Pakistan. If we can act more as a power broker for regional rivals, and less as a paternal police force who decides good guys and bad guys, maybe we can build a more secure future for ourselves, Iranians, Pakistanis and the world.

A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind

Pakistan: A Hard Country

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