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Prospects for Pakistan’s mediating role between Saudi Arabia and Iran: Why is it important to keep balance?

By S. Sadia Kazmi

The voice of reason may call for a neutral stance to be taken by Pakistan, more preferably a role of a mediator between Iran and KSA, which the officials of Pakistan have proactively adopted and are very wisely conveying it too. But the real question is; to what extent can Pakistan effectively play this self assumed role?  As a matter of fact there is nothing new about KSA and Iran not getting along well with each other. Even though Pakistan is being lauded for its efforts to pacify both the states but considering their ever present ideological differences and frictional geopolitical interests, and its own domestic and traditional security concerns, Pakistan has some serious rational thinking to do while it aspires to be a peace broker between the two.

One major prerequisite for a mediator is to hold a position of respect, an unconditional support and trust by the contending parties. Does Pakistan enjoy such a position in this particular case?

Looking at the pattern of relations that Pakistan has had with the two major Middle Eastern states reveals that while KSA had been a close ally, Iran cannot be ignored as an important neighbor. Pakistan’s traditionally warm association with KSA that comes with mutual geostrategic and economic interests was always perceived as a major irritant in Pakistan’s relations with Iran. Not just that but Pakistan’s lukewarm stance on IP gas pipeline project is essentially seen as falling victim to pro-Riyadh inclination of Nawaz Sharif government against Tehran. The pro-sunni Iranian insurgents allegedly stationed in Pakistan along Balochistan-Sistan border is another enduring problem shared by Pakistan and Iran. However the recent shift in power equilibrium in the Middle Eastern region with the materialization of nuclear deal with Iran and consequently the Western sanctions on it having been lifted, as well as Pakistan’s refusal to be part of Saudi led war in Yemen, makes KSA insecure and specifically skeptical of Pakistan’s intentions. Even though Pakistan has now given consent for its inclusion in KSA led 34 states coalition against terrorism, but KSA is still keen on seeking reassurances from Pakistan that it will not let the sovereignty of the holy land be ever compromised, as is evident from the recent visit by PM Nawaz Sharif and COAS Raheel Sharif to KSA where the state visit only culminated in the revival of this pledge.  At the same time, even though Pakistan’s consent for the coalition is not without certain pre-conditions, Iran doesn’t seem too happy with the coalition from which Syria, Iraq and Iran have intentionally been left out.   Also the fact that Pakistan’s leadership paid visit to Riyadh before visiting Tehran and stayed there much longer as compared to a few hours stay in Iran, may not augur well  for its relations with Iran, despite the fact that no such sentiments or rhetoric have been issued by Iran as yet.

In fact quite interestingly there hasn’t been a single statement released by Iran or KSA. Have they even acknowledged Pakistan’s initiative? This is yet to be seen. Nonetheless it is a fact that Pakistan couldn’t stay quiet on this matter. Especially because the prospective spat between KSA and Iran and the rising tension in the Middle Eastern region has direct implications for Pakistan.  Since 1980s Pakistan seems to be a hot spot for KSA and Iran for their respective proxies against each other. This fact coupled with other domestic reasons has adversely affected the sectarian landscape of the country. In the present scenario it is only natural for Pakistani leadership to be concerned about the possibility of Iran and KSA getting engaged in a full out proxy war in Pakistan while simultaneously pursuing it in Syria and Iraq. So now whether Pakistan is recognized as a mediator or not and whether its visit to the two states yield any substantial results or not, Pakistan should take the opportunity to firmly convey to both the states that whatever their differences, they will no more be allowed to “use” Pakistan for their proxies. It is being hoped that the COAS Raheel Sharif, who has been diligently working to root out terrorism and extremism from the country, must have made the visit and his presence more useful by conveying this particular message across to both Iran and KSA.

Pakistan needs to maintain and effectively convey its policy of non interference in the Middle East and if and when required should use its good offices to bring the hostile parties on the negotiating table.  Experts believe that only a balanced approach by Pakistan towards the two countries is imperative to improve sectarian harmony in the country. For Pakistan, more than playing a mediator, the main concern should be preserving its own national security and staying vigilant of its internal security situation which is usually disrupted by external hostile factors including so called “ally” in the Muslim world and an adjacent “important neighbor”, who are constantly locked in an escalating competition for influence and dominance of the Middle East.

Also the fact cannot be overlooked that Pakistan has most of the time been providing military teeth to KSA’s strategy in the Middle Eastern region and in return have been receiving huge economic dividends. However on the other hand, with Iran there hasn’t been any substantial connection ever since the 1979 Iranian revolution but one cannot ignore the geographical aspect where Iran lies just next to Pakistan. While Pakistan is already facing hostility at two fronts from India and Afghanistan it needs to be careful about opening a third front with Iran in its neighborhood. For now one can only stay positive about Pakistan’s self assumed mediatory role while the diplomatic sanity requires Pakistan to strictly adopt “neutrality” as a rational choice.

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Sadia Kazmi

Sadia Kazmi works as a Senior Research Associate at the Strategic Vision Institute in Islamabad. She is a PhD candidate at the National Defense University

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