Bridge over troubled waters

Islamabad begins a bold initiative to defuse tensions between Tehran and Riyadh

Bridge over troubled waters
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and army chief Gen Raheel Sharif have got off to a good start in their effort to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran, by getting both countries to welcome the initiative.

The two leaders visited Riyadh and Tehran at the start of the week to offer Pakistan’s good offices to both the countries for ending renewed tensions in their perpetually uneasy relationship.

After concluding his two country trip, Nawaz Sharif looked upbeat but cautious about the success of the initiative for which he stressed “sincerity”.

The Pakistani move, which came as a surprise to many diplomatic observers, preceded other international initiatives to defuse tensions between the two countries and prevent an escalation of the crisis that started earlier this month when the Kingdom executed four Shia activists, including a well-known cleric Sheikh Nimr Baqir Al-Nimr. He was a leading figure in the Arab Spring protests in the Kingdom. Iran reacted sharply to the development. The attack on Saudi missions in Tehran and Mashad by Iranians protesting against the executions led to Riyadh cutting off diplomatic ties with Tehran – a step that was followed by other Arab countries.

Important as it is for the start of any such an initiative, the leadership of both countries, according to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, expressed their desire to de-escalate and agreed that their rift could potentially intensify terrorism and extremism in the already conflict ridden region.

Pakistan and Iran have further agreed to appoint special envoys for taking this project forward, while Nawaz Sharif has said that “he would also talk to the Saudis about this.”
King Salman vowed to fight back with full force

It was this much that could have been expected from the mediation effort that was just taking off. But the real work has just begun – to get the two sides agree to lowering their tensions and taking confidence building measures. This could at a later stage lead to direct engagement between the two, but would definitely be a tough ask and would require nimble diplomacy by Pakistan.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had listed his conditions for a possible rapprochement in his meeting with PM Sharif – that Saudi Arabia should stop isolating Iran in the Arab world, treat it ‘respectfully’, observe diplomatic norms and respect the rights of ‘Muslims’ (a reference to Shia minority of Saudi Arabia).

The Saudis, meanwhile, have only welcomed the Pakistani move, but did not state their conditions for reduction of tensions. The problems between the two countries are longstanding though their expression keeps changing with time. The Saudi concerns are that Iran, which has just come out of isolation following successful implementation of a nuclear deal with the world powers, has expansionist designs in the Arab world and is pursuing sectarian policies. During meeting with PM Sharif, the Saudis pointed to Iran’s involvement with Lebanon’s Hizbollah (which is currently fighting ISIS and other elements trying to bring down Syrian President Bashar Assad), Yemen’s Houthis (whom Saudi Arabia and its allies have been bombing since last year), and Iraqi militias (who have also been successfully battling ISIS along with Iraq’s regular security forces). The Saudi leaders see Iranian actions in the Middle East as “aggression and expansionism”. A source present in the meeting said King Salman vowed to fight back with full force until Iran stops intervening in the Arab world.

Nawaz Sharif told accompanying journalists that he had conveyed the Saudi concerns to his Iranian interlocutors.

The Iranians on the other hand accuse Saudi Arabia of promoting extremism and instability in the region. They believe Riyadh had tried to scuttle their nuclear deal with the West. President Rouhani had told PM Sharif that Iran had avoided responding to Saudi provocations in the past, and was still ready for a dialogue.

Bridging such a huge trust deficit would not be easy. It would be a major success for Pakistan even if it gets the two countries to manage the conflict and prevent it from aggravating.

Additionally, there have been questions over Pakistan’s credibility as an honest and neutral arbitrator. Pakistan has already put itself deep inside the Saudi camp and joined the 34 nation alliance announced by Riyadh for ‘countering terrorism’. The Pakistani leadership has publicly stated on several occasions that it will give a ‘strong response’ to any threat to Saudi territorial integrity.

It seems that the Pakistani government was pushed into the mediation act by the mood at home where a majority was averse to taking sides in the row between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The sectarian divide in the country and fears that the conflict could worsen those divisions is said to be a major reason behind the move.

The writer is a freelance journalist

based in Islamabad


Twitter: @bokhari_mr