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May 26, 2019

Walking a tight rope


May 26, 2019

Nations in the Middle East and those engaged with them in any fashion are walking along a thin line as tensions between Tehran and Washington continue to mount. Pakistan has become drawn into this crisis-like situation with Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif visiting the country to hold talks with his Pakistani counterpart Shah Mahmood Qureshi and also Prime Minister Imran Khan. No details have been disclosed but it is believed Tehran may be seeking Islamabad’s help in its dealings with Riyadh. Islamabad and Riyadh are of course close allies, with Saudi Arabia recently extending a $3.2 billion deferred oil and gas payment package for its resource strapped South Asian ally.

The crisis essentially involves a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers. While again Washington has not clarified its concerns, it has been sending heavy weaponry including an aircraft carrier and B 52 bombers to the region over what it terms a perceived threat from Iran. A meeting of the Arab League has been called next week in Saudi Arabia over the mounting regional tensions. These have been added to by the ongoing conflict in Yemen where rebels backed by Saudi Arabia and Iran face off against each other. On Thursday, an airport and a military base inside Saudi Arabia was targeted by a drone allegedly sent out by Houthi rebels. Animosity between Riyadh and Tehran has been high for months, with Iran calling on world powers to help broker the unravelling crisis over its nuclear deal.

In all this, Pakistan will need to tread with caution. There are many potential traps along the way. Pakistan’s relationship with Iran has traditionally been a delicate one, flaring up at times into open exchanges of words. Islamabad is closely linked to Saudi Arabia but has little leverage in Washington, despite the slight improvement in relations over the past few months. It will therefore need to consider carefully how it can best handle the situation. Inside Iran, the government led by President Hassan Rouhani has also come under attack from the country’s own hardliners. It is essential that a crisis with the potential to destabilize not only the region but the world is defused. How Pakistan can help in this may become clearer once the outcome of the recent talks is disclosed. However, the country can pressurize powers around the world to ensure that the situation does not worsen and that Iran does not suffer further from American sanctions which have already sent its economy into freefall. There is nothing to be gained from conflict. It is therefore imperative that peace prevail and that Pakistan play whatever role it can in making this peace possible.

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