Saudi Arabia, Iran exude optimism amid Imran’s effort

October 20, 2019

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s facilitation effort seeking ease in tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran to avert a war is bearing fruit as both Tehran and Riyadh are signalling optimism and...

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Prime Minister Imran Khan’s facilitation effort seeking ease in tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran to avert a war is bearing fruit as both Tehran and Riyadh are signalling optimism and readiness for a possible engagement.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman in principle have agreed to take up Islamabad’s offer of facilitation.

They have also welcomed PM Imran Khan’s invitation to host them in Islamabad for direct or indirect talks. Tentatively, they likely visit Islamabad soon and the possible timing could the end of November with the caveat that both leadership thrash out the modalities of the possible engagement.

Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qurashi was also very emphatic: “Our talks have been encouraging and the response that we got in the two countries was beyond our expectations,” while talking to a press conference in Islamabad after PM’s visit to Riyadh.

Iran-Saudi tension has taken centre stage on Pakistan’s foreign policy priority list to de-escalate the crisis.

Pakistan since enjoys strategic relations with Saudi Arabia and good neighbourly ties with Iran is in a better place to be a bridge in reducing the tension between the two countries.

Islamabad has a long experience of dealing with conflict resolution in Afghanistan and managing a very hostile powerful neighbour like India. Already Pakistan was playing very critical role on Afghanistan to boost reconciliation efforts and push for respectful drawdown of the US troops out of the country. On PM Imran Khan’s persuasion, the US-Afghan talks will resume most likely this week.

Coincidentally, there is a realisation in the region that treading up the escalation ladder by Iran and Saudi Arabia, resulting in a full blown conflict, will turn the entire Middle East into a conflict zone and the world economy will come to a grinding halt with oil prices going through the roof—a nightmarish scenario to contemplate.

Tehran has the best chance to benefit from Pakistan’s special relations with Saudi Arabia and thus get some geo-political mileage, given the US pruning its role as a guarantor of regional security, Riyadh will likely more rely on leveraging its security and defence cooperation with Pakistan.

Prior to the Prime Minister making his journey to Iran and Saudi Arabia, the ISI Chief Gen Faiz Hameed visited Tehran and Riyadh to lay the groundwork by meeting the relevant security establishments of the two states and assessed where they stood.

Traditionally, Pakistan has tactically distanced its from conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen.

We are not yet there but the CBMs and short term issues among others revolve around Yemen situation—one priority pressure point for Iran and a foreign policy and national security challenge for Saudi Arabia. There is a genuine possibility that Saudi Arabia and parties to the Yemen conflict engage for a tentative ceasefire and Pakistan can facilitate any such engagement. Though on Yemen, Islamabad has been supporting the deposed President Abdurabuh Mansour Hadi, it did not join the Saudi-Emirati-led led intervention against the Houthis’ insurgency; Iran concedes that Islamabad can play a mediating role in Yemen by bringing warring parties to talk with the countries of the region; Iran is not a direct party to the dispute—like Ankara, (ie, Turkey)—Tehran is supporting competing parties, can not set for talks on the table yet can indirectly support possible Pakistani effort; Yemen is poorer and weaker country like Afghanistan can hardly endanger the KSA while the KSA is no stronger than the US like in Afghanistan, and can not meaningfully defeat these groups, as the thinking in Tehran goes.

Another hot issue up the Iranian Tanker called “Sabiti” which was attacked in the Red Sea by a State or a number of States as claimed by the Iranian Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif. Here again Islamabad’s engagement is relevant.

Saudi Arabia is pragmatic and mature enough to revisit its foreign policy challenges. That is why it was Riyadh which signalled readiness to reduce the tension in the region in the first place. Though PM Imran Khan has said that his initiative is Pakistan originated and is not in response to any third party request, he was actually not giving away any diplomatic levy for the two rival parties to ascertain their level of eagerness and vulnerability while possibly going into any negotiations. Yet PM Imran Khan’s quest stems from encouragement by the concerned parties to help bridge the gap.

Nevertheless, It is going to be a win-win situation for both Iran and Saudi Arabia, on the one hand, and the entire region, on the other, that the tension in the Middle East is reduced and a knife-edge situation is neutralised if Imran Khan succeeds..

The Prime Minister has emerged as a credible leader and gained the reputation of a strong man after UNGA speech. He has won acclaim for his candid talk on issues from Islamophobia to Kashmir to anti-terror policies of the US.

Putting Pakistan at the world stage of diplomacy and relevance, Imran Khan has put India on the mat: Delhi has faced a backlash on human rights situation of IOK; it has been condemned by western public opinion makers, congressmen/ women, parliamentarians, political parties and human rights organisations. For the first time India is feeling the heat on its Kashmir policy mainly due to Pakistan’s robust diplomatic lobbying. Delhi will also fail on the FATF issue—it has been lobbying for Islamabad to be blacklisted but it is unlikely to happen.

After Afghanistan, Pakistan’s “China moment”—when Islamabad facilitated the US engagement that ultimately led to detente with Beijing in the 1970s—may be arriving if Imran Khan’s facilitation in the greater Middle East bears positive fruit.

His warmth and integrity has already endeared him with world leaders from President Trump to Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, President Erdogan and Prime Minister Mohatir Mohmmad. That is why he was asked by President Trump and Prince Mohmmad Bin Salman to de-escalate tension with Iran, pinning hope on him to be statesmanly in dealing with regional challenges. If Pakistan pulls off the leadership of both Iran and Saudi Arabia converge in Islamabad for direct or indirect engagement, it will be a foreign policy coup for Prime Minister Imran Khan. (Jan Achakzai is a geopolitical analyst, a politician from Balochistan, and ex-adviser to the Balochistan Government on media and strategic communication. He remained associated with BBC World Service. He is also Chairman of Centre for Geo-Politics & Balochistan).

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