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January 21, 2016

Diplomacy in the time of disorder


January 21, 2016

As Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s shuttle diplomacy between Saudi Arabia and Iran concluded with initial encouraging signs, Pakistan was again struck with yet another Army Public School-like terrorist attack – this time on the Bacha Khan University in Charsadda. Who else should be more aware of the menace of terrorism and the need to forge a broadest possible alliance to eliminate it from the fertile soil of the Muslim world than Pakistan?

Initially somewhat carried by aggressive Saudi persuasions, after successive official visits from the Kingdom, the Sharif administration somehow meekly joined the Saudi-led 34-nation alliance against terrorism, ostensibly ‘backed by the Iranians’. Although Islamabad continued to rule out military engagement, except for the defence of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), the opposition and the wider public opinion restrained the Sharif government from taking sides in a conflict that has been a major source of destabilisation in the Middle East and of sectarian strife across the Muslim world.

However, preoccupation with the ongoing ‘war on terror’, uncertain conditions on both the eastern and western borders and geo-strategic restraints in taking a position in favour of Riyadh and against Tehran, helped sense prevail. And Pakistan seems to have almost gone back to the position that it took at the peak of the Saudi intervention in Yemen.

Prime Minister Sharif and COAS Raheel Sharif were, however, encouraged to initiate their shuttle diplomacy, after getting some kind of indications from the Saudis and also the otherwise suspicious Iranians to play the role of a kind of an emissary between the two regional rivals. Frustrated with the fiasco of their drive to oust Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, the military stalemate in Yemen, unrest in its eastern parts and disappointed with the Iran-P5+1 nuclear deal and lifting of sanctions on Iran, Saudi Arabia had to recalibrate its strategic thrusts in a changing geo-strategic environment favourable to Iran. The creation of a hodgepodge 34-nation alliance in desperation could not compensate for the multiple challenges, from within, the region and the world at large.

The jubilant Iranians, after the lifting of the international sanctions and with greater confidence in diplomatically handling their differences with the Saudis to focus their attention on expediting domestic reforms and reviving an ailing economy, showed their willingness for engagement. According to IRNA, Iranian President Hasan Rouhani told PM Sharif that nuclear talks and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action could be used as a model for development of cooperation or settlement of complicated disputes in the region.

Rouhani laid down his conditions: that “Muslim rights be respected (a reference to protection of minority Shia rights in majority Sunni states) and nations of the region be honoured (with regard to Syria and Yemen) and diplomatic frameworks be observed (revival of diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia and giving diplomacy a chance)”.

On his part, PM Sharif had to clarify that he was “not acting on anyone’s behest” – dispelling an overwhelming impression in the media and in Iran that he was acting as an ‘emissary’ of King Salman of Saudi Arabia. Similarly, in his separate meeting(s) with Iranian Defence Minister Brigadier General Husain Dehgan and National Security Advisor to the President Shamiankhawni, Pakistan Army Chief General Raheel Sharif reportedly tried to alleviate Iran’s apprehensions about Pakistan’s participation in the 34-nation alliance which is seen by Tehran as primarily against Iran and its allies.

It is by no means a small achievement that Iran has agreed and proposed to appoint a focal person for negotiations and PM Sharif has indicated that he will request the Saudis to reciprocate. This is not the first time that Nawaz Sharif has tried to mediate between the Saudis and the Iranians. He had helped ease tensions between the two and facilitated a meeting between the then president of Iran Hashmi Rafsanjani and King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz on the sidelines of OIC Summit in Islamabad in 1997.

If Saudi Arabia has been a crucial ally and supporter of Islamabad, the Iranians too have been very close to Pakistan when both were US allies. However, distances emerged after Iran’s Islamic revolution when Pakistan joined the US war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

But times have changed as have relations of forces in the wider region, the Middle East in particular. Iran has firmly fought Al-Qaeeda, Daesh and other Sunni terrorist outfits in Iraq and Syria, even though it has been prompting up its allies in Lebanon, West Bank, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. With a surge of reformers in Iran, boosted by the sanctions being lifted, and expansion of Iranian influence in the Middle East and elsewhere, Tehran is inclined to play a much more effective role against terrorism, primarily that of Sunni origin.

On the other hand, Saudi Arabia not only faces a potential threat from radical Islamists from within, its allies and surrogates are on retreat in Syria and Iraq while its war against the Houthis in Yemen has not advanced as it had desired. Coupled with continuing decline in its fortunes and increasing Western ease with Iran, the worries of the sheikhdoms are not going to decrease.

In light of all these factors, the conditions are conducive to mediation. All the world players are now engaged with both sides. Regional rivalries and international strategic games make reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran too big a task for Pakistan – already bogged down in its own troubles – to handle. The road to Tehran-Riyadh reconciliation goes through settlement of civil wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen and peaceful co-existence between the rival regional powers and on an agreement not to prop up their proxies on sectarian lines.

Pakistan can, at best, keep goodwill with both, provide a neutral meditational forum, if possible, and behave in its own national interest. And, at worse, lose a most pivotal neighbour at a far bigger cost or lose a crucial patron – not an option indeed. It will be best to keep away from these troubled waters and be equally good to both, while facilitating interactions between the two.

The writer is a political analyst.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @ImtiazAlamSAFMA

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