Friday May 20, 2022

Reopening diplomacy

January 22, 2022

Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two major traditional rivals in the Middle East, have shown interest in restoring their bilateral ties after a period of six years. Saudi Arabia had broken off its ties with Iran after the January 2016 attack when an angry mob stormed the Saudi embassy in the Iranian capital, Tehran.

Recent reports suggest that both countries are ready to reopen their embassies, which have been closed for the past six years. Iran has already sent three diplomats to Saudi Arabia, who are now busy restoring the Iranian office in Jeddah.

According to Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, four rounds of talks between the two countries have been held in Iraq. He is quite confident that Saudi Arabia is also interested in negotiating with Iran on some regional issues. However, at the moment, the focus is on resolving bilateral issues.

This news reminded me of the era of the cold war when Iran and Saudi Arabia had the status of ‘twin pillars’ under the doctrine of US President Richard Nixon. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has always been considered a close ally of the US since its formation whereas the Shah of Iran was also the guardian of US interests in the region. However, after the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the country emerged as an enemy of the US.

The two oil-rich nations have been competing with each other on all fronts to increase their influence in the Middle East. Most notably, the situation in Syria and Yemen, where the ongoing civil war is facing a similar internal situation. Interestingly, the military alliance of Saudi-led allies is a firm supporter of the Yemeni government in the fight against Houthi rebels and accuses Iran of supplying weapons to the rebels. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia opposes Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad while Iran is working side by side with the Syrian regime to suppress the insurgency.

The role of Iraq, which is to bring the two countries to the table of dialogue, is crucial and significant. Since last year, Iraq has hosted four rounds of high-level talks, held in Baghdad. Although international observers are looking for the reasons for this astonishing development, I believe that the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan was a clear sign that the US has no more military interests in the region. The indication by US President Joe Biden to rejoin the nuclear deal with Iran further reflects a change in US foreign policy. Similarly, Iran does not want any other Arab state to form any regional alliance against its interests.

I believe that the top leadership of Saudi Arabia and Iran have realised that they are paying a heavy price for the cold war in the Middle East. According to a report by a US-based think-tank, Iran used to spend between $15,000 million and $20,000 million in a year on its regional allies. Similarly, tensions with Iran have increased Saudi Arabia’s annual military budget to more than $57,000 million.

In my view, the decision of Iran and Saudi Arabia to abandon their long rivalry and restore diplomatic relations will have a positive and long-lasting effect on the entire region, including Pakistan. The recent developments between Saudi Arabia and Iran also reinforce my stance that enmity cannot last long and the solution to every problem is dialogue. Be it the Korean countries or the former parts of Germany or European countries, all have resolved their disputes through negotiations.

I have been struggling for a long time to promote religious tourism to bring the people of Pakistan and India closer. My sincere initiative will not only bring regional peace and stability but also promote interfaith harmony as all religions including Islam and Hinduism teach peace, harmony, brotherhood and mutual respect. After the reconciliation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the world, hopefully, will soon hear another good news regarding Pakistan and India.

The writer is a member of the National Assembly and patron-in-chief of the Pakistan Hindu Council.

He tweets @RVankwani