Delicate diplomacy

It was the ideal time for Islamabad to suggest to the world that Pakistan is not just about terror, but also capable of peace initiatives.

After much deliberation, Pakistan offered to be a mediator in the Saudi-Iran feud. While the chances of any mediator influencing the reconciliation are negligible because of the multi-layered problem, the fact that Islamabad ventured into muddled West Asia terrain is intriguing.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir confirmed the complexity of the problem a few days ago by saying that many countries had come forward with mediation offers, but Riyadh did not require them because “the Kingdom is aware of its rights and Iran knows what has to be done.”

Yet, it is interesting to delve into the reasons for Islamabad's mediation offer. The primary reason for the shuttle diplomacy in the third week of January was international fears that a prolonged Saudi-Iran confrontation could have serious consequences for the region.

Riyadh severed diplomatic ties with Tehran on January 3 after the Saudi embassy in Iran was vandalised. This reaction followed the Kingdom’s execution of several dissidents, including a prominent Saudi Shiite cleric, Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr. Thereafter, both countries imposed retaliatory diplomatic and trade curbs, thereby intensifying an already fragile relationship.

Pakistan first claimed that it did not want to mediate because of the delicate Sunni-Shiite divide at home and the possible repercussions it could face if it got involved in the Saudi-Iran ideological battle, which is a reason for the regional turmoil. “We don’t want that some sectarian friction erupts…We don’t want that terrorist elements take any advantage of the Iran-Saudi Arabia tension,” Islamabad had said.

With a sizeable Shiite minority, Pakistan’s assessment was that it has a lot to lose from rising sectarian tensions in the region. It was this fear that forced Pakistan, after a parliament vote last year, to decline a Saudi call to join a Riyadh-led military intervention in Yemen to fight Iran-allied Al Houthis (It is worth recalling that following the Arab uprising in Bahrain in 2011, about 2,500 former Pakistani servicemen were reportedly recruited and deployed in Manama. This increased the size of Bahrain’s anti-riot police to quell the largely-Shiite uprising against the largely-Sunni government).

Islamabad later used the same rationale to explain its mediatory role. It wanted to stop the Saudi-Iran sectarian row from escalating and affecting Pakistan. Since this was a diplomatic initiative and no parliamentary obstacles were involved, Islamabad was willing to be less cautious. So both ways, ‘Pakistan first’ rationale served well.

It also offered an opportunity for Islamabad to mend fences with Riyadh and other Gulf neighbours who were peeved with the decision not to join the Saudi-led Arab coalition in Yemen and the hesitation before joining the Saudi-led coalition against terror outfit Islamic State, both in 2015.

More importantly, it was the ideal time to suggest to the world that Pakistan was not just about terror, but also capable of peace initiatives. This could be linked to the recent peace efforts with India and the attempt to act against Jaish-e-Mohammed, even if it has only meant that its chief and a few others are in preventive custody.

The most fascinating dynamics of Islamabad’s mediation is that the oft-cited not-in-sync civilian-military leadership – Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif – travelled together to impress upon “brotherly” Saudi Arabia and “neighbourly” Iran.

This suggests that the civilian-military leadership equation is changing for the better in a country that has seen several differences and coups in the past. While they may have differences on India and India-unfriendly terror groups, they appear to be on the same page with regard to the Saudi-Iran mediation and other matters pertaining to West Asia.
This cooperation could again be linked to the countrywide crackdown on terror outfits in Pakistan, which was launched after the 2014 Peshawar school massacre.

Next, Saudi Arabia (led by the visits of deputy crown prince-defence minister and foreign minister) may have impressed upon Pakistan to come on board in a show of solidarity. Seeking to remain neutral, however, Pakistan decided to play the go-between.

Sharif’s personal rapport with Saudi Arabia, especially since the Kingdom provided him asylum between 2000 and 2007 after being ousted by Gen Pervez Musharraf, may be a factor too. In addition, the Kingdom has also lent economic assistance to Pakistan for decades.

Military capabilities
From a strategic perspective, irrespective of what India thinks, Pakistan still appeals to Saudi Arabia – even if it has waned recently. During desperate times such as these, Saudi Arabia feels emboldened that Sunni Pakistan possesses the capability to act as a nuclear-armed counterweight to Shiite Iran.

Pakistan has a long history of deploying its military capabilities to protect the desert kingdom, especially during the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1991 US-led Gulf War.

Likewise, Pakistan has other considerations from the Iranian angle. Pak-Iran relations have been delicate since the 1979 Islamic revolution, following which Tehran drifted closer to New Delhi. Recently, Pakistan has been trying to overcome its regional isolation by warming up to Iran.

Economically, with oil prices at a low, Iran could address Pakistan’s energy needs – help finish the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project (funded by China) and import electricity across the border.

Moreover, Pakistan’s nationwide anti-terror fight is linked to ending the war in Afghanistan. Islamabad hopes to use its contacts with the Afghani Taliban to broker a political settlement, for which it requires Saudi-Iran cooperation.

Another angle could be Pakistan-Iran’s cooperation to refrain from alleged Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s recruitment of Pakistani Shiites to fight against the Islamic State in Syria.

Thus, irrespective of the effort not heading in the intended direction, Pakistan displayed smart diplomacy.

(The writer is a Dubai-based political analyst, author and Honorary Fellow of the University of Exeter, UK)

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