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Wednesday April 24, 2024

News Analysis: What historic Saudi-Iran deal means for Pakistan

Pakistan government also commends China's role in facilitating historic "diplomatic breakthrough"

By Zebunnisa Burki
March 12, 2023
Saudi Arabias Musaad bin Mohammed Al Aiban (left), China’s top diplomat Wang Yi and Irans Ali Shamkhani stand together in Beijing on Friday. — China Daily
Saudi Arabia's Musaad bin Mohammed Al Aiban (left), China’s top diplomat Wang Yi and Iran's Ali Shamkhani stand together in Beijing on Friday. — China Daily

KARACHI: The Saudi-Iran peace deal has been hailed as a welcome step towards peace by former diplomats and foreign policy analysts in Pakistan, who have called it a “gamechanger” and a “brave new chapter” that should be seen as a big win for peace not only in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East but also for Pakistan.

Talking to The News, Pakistan’s former representative to the UN and twice ambassador to the US Dr Maleeha Lodhi says: “This is a game changer for the region as well as the world”. She adds: “For Pakistan, it opens up new diplomatic and economic opportunities. For decades, Pakistan has followed a policy of balancing relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, treading very carefully between a strategic ally and a neighbour. Now the rapprochement between the two former rivals means diplomatic space opens up for Islamabad to consider new initiatives and also strengthen ties with Iran”.

Former ambassador Mr Shafqat Kakakhel who has served in various capacities in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, says that: “There was always a problem [for Pakistan] on balancing relations with both countries. So news of this apparent breakthrough can only be welcomed in Islamabad”. Mr Kakakhel says that “the Saudis and the Iranians seem to have realized that it would be in their interest to try and reach some kind of a broad understanding and that [in the status quo] only their mercenaries win”.

China’s involvement is seen as “remarkable” by Mr Kakakhel who says China’s Wang Yi has proven himself a great diplomat. “Historically this role should have been played by Pakistan or Egypt, the two Muslim countries that could have spoken to both Saudi Arabia and Iran”, says Mr Kakakhel.

He adds though that one can’t jump to conclusions right now: “As they say there’s many a slip between the cup and the lip...A substantial improvement in Saudi- Iran relations will require dedicated efforts by the erstwhile antagonists as well as the goodwill and support of the influential powers”.

For Pakistan, says Mr Kakakhel, this is no doubt a welcome deal: “Islamabad has always stood for reconciliation -- whether it was Iran and Iraq in the 90s or the Yemen crisis which was really hurting Muslims.” Speaking about the significance of both countries for Pakistan, he says that “We have two million expats in Saudi Arabia and Iran is important for us as a neighbour. One must never minimize the importance of a neighboring country. We have nothing to lose, and everything to gain. The Muslim world has so much to gain from this....The Saudi-Iran rivalry had undermined Islamic solidarity and closer economic and cultural cooperation in the Ummah. [This deal] must be welcomed by all Muslim countries. It should also be blessed by the most influential powers of the world.” Former ambassador Javid Husain, who served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Iran from 1997 to 2003, tells The News that “from Pakistan’s point of view, this is a very welcome development. Pakistan has close relations with both the countries. It is also, first of all, in the interest of both countries to have friendly relations [with each other]. And for Pakistan if there are tensions between the two, it puts us in a very difficult situation -- because it is not in our interest to choose between them.”

On whether the perception that India is close to Iran is of any significance here, Mr Husain says that he does not agree with the notion that India has better ties with Iran than Pakistan does: “Whenever there has been a threat from India, Iran has supported us and stood with us within the limits of its own possibilities. We are interested in friendly ties with both Saudi Arabia and Iran -- not one at the expense of the other.” He adds that cooperation between the Saudis and the Iranians “will work to build stability in the Middle East and especially the Persian Gulf” which has been badly affected due to conflict and wars.

Mosharraf Zaidi, political analyst and foreign policy commentator, also finds the agreement to be a “welcome development” but is sceptical of what he calls the “revisionist and revolutionary character of Iran’s rulers” that compels them to “seek to expand Tehran’s influence -- by hook or by crook”. His caution also stems from past such initiatives: “Over a decade ago, after many fits and starts, then Iranian president Ahmedinejad and then King Abdullah met in Makkah, at the 2012 OIC Summit. Like previous efforts, the peace and reconciliation efforts at the time failed to endure”. However, he does add that if China’s involvement could “serve to temper Iran’s negative incentives”, that would represent “the best hope for this new agreement to last longer and influence more deeply the Riyadh-Tehran relationship. If actualized, it would mark a brave new chapter”.

The China-brokered deal has not gone unnoticed by Western analysts. Tweeting about its significance for Pakistan, South Asia Institute Director at The Wilson Center Michael Kugelman says that: “This China-mediated Iran-Saudi Arabia reconciliation is a black swan event -- a surprise, rare watershed moment for international relations that [will] have major ripple effects across the globe, including South Asia -- especially Pakistan -- where [the] Iran-KSA rivalry has played out heavily.”

On Friday, Pakistan’s Foreign Office put out a statement ‘warmly’ welcoming the normalization of diplomatic relations, calling it an “important diplomatic breakthrough” and commending the role played by “China’s visionary leadership”.