A rock and a hard place: Pak’s uneasy stance on Saudi Arabia-Iran split

  • Rezaul H Laskar, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jan 19, 2016 12:25 IST
Pakistani Sunni Muslims hold placards bearing images of Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz during a protest rally in Islamabad on January 8, 2016, against Iran and in the support of Saudi Arabia. (AFP Photo)

Pakistan’s discomfiture at being caught in the row between Saudi Arabia and Iran is evident in the back-to-back visits to the two countries by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and army chief Gen Raheel Sharif, an initiative described as a mediation effort aimed at reducing tensions.

Islamabad has publicly expressed deep concern at the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and Prime Minister Sharif, during a meeting with King Salman bin Abdulaziz on Monday, sought the resolution of differences through peaceful means in the “larger interest of the Ummah” or Muslim brotherhood.

A recent assertion by army chief Sharif that “any threat to Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity would evoke a strong response from Pakistan” was interpreted by some in Islamabad as a veiled warning to Iran. But the Foreign Office was quick to explain that Islamabad wants enhance its relations with Tehran.

Despite such public expressions, the Pakistani civil and military leadership’s main concern is the possible fallout of the diplomatic spat on the country’s growing Shia-Sunni divide.

Though Saudi Arabia is one of Pakistan’s closest allies, charities and religious organisations based in the kingdom have for long funded Sunni extremist and terrorist groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.

On the other hand, Pakistan’s Shias, who make up 20% of the country’s population of 180 million, have often looked to Iran for spiritual leadership and support.

There have even been whispers that Iran backed some Shia militias that were created in Pakistan in past decades in response to repeated attacks by Sunni organisations. And one of the reasons that Islamabad decided in 2009 to give near-provincial status to Gilgit-Baltistan was the growing influence of Iran among the region’s sizeable Shia population.

Besides Islamabad’s recent discomfort at being included in an anti-terror coalition formed by the Saudis, the country’s leadership does not want Pakistan to become the battlefield for a proxy war between Riyadh and Tehran.

This is the prime reason behind the visits by the Prime Minister and the army chief to Saudi Arabia and Iran on Monday and Tuesday.

Observers say the Saudi-Iran spat and ongoing efforts to revive peace talks with the Afghan Taliban have become so important that Pakistan’s probe into the Pathankot terror attack was relegated to the sidelines once Islamabad and New Delhi agreed to postpone – and not call off – a planned meeting of the foreign secretaries.

Despite the Pakistani leadership’s assertion that the visits to Riyadh and Tehran are aimed at reducing tensions, some in Islamabad aren’t convinced.

“I personally don’t see any sincerity in the move. How can someone who has openly taken sides and threatened the other side of a ‘strong response’ act as a neutral arbitrator?” Baqir Sajjad Syed, the diplomatic correspondent of the Dawn newspaper, told Hindustan Times.

“This is a political ploy to divide the anti-Saudi camp at home and prepare the grounds for overt cooperation with the kingdom.”

(The views expressed by the writer are personal. He tweets as @rezhasan)

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