Pakistan has always been left with tough choices in its longstanding bilateral relations of shared ambitions and mutual interests; such is the case of its relation with the two Middle Eastern flanks; Iran as the Persian Gulf ally and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) as a very significant strategic partner. Ever since the start of its diplomatic relations (often more tilted towards Saudi Arabia) Pakistan tried its best to adopt a neutral approach and keep balance amid Arabs and Persians. Although, it was not an easy task because both Iran and Saudi Arabia have been stuck in a security dilemma of culture and sectarian dominance. This conflict of interest has indulged the two of them in a zero-sum game of regional supremacy.
At present Pakistan once again is set on a mission to ease tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The September 14, 2019’s cruise missile and drone attacks by Yemen’s Houthi group on Saudi Aramco oil installations and the attack on Iranian vessel Sabiti on October 11, 2019 (although assailant is unconfirmed) has added fuel to the catastrophe. The deteriorating situation has disturbed regional peace immensely. Taking into account the significant of the matter and avoid war in the Middle East, Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan visited Iran and Saudi Arabia right after two days of Iranian oil vessel incident on October 13, 2019. While presenting Pakistan’s view on the current situation Prime Minister Khan said ‘We recognize that it’s a complex issue. But we feel that this can be resolved through dialogue. But what should never happen, is war between Saudi Arabia and Iran’. The outcome of the meeting with the Iranian leader was fair enough, as the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani emphasized for peace talks and acknowledged Pakistan’s effort for the resolution of the prevailing situation in the region. President Rouhani said ‘Any goodwill gesture and good words will be reciprocated with a goodwill gesture and good words’.
Pakistan’s refusal to join any one of the two allies in the past conflict (particularly Yemen crisis) was a positive decision and has placed Pakistan in a neutral position. This role for facilitating the peace dialogue may enable Pakistan with a chance to relax pressure. However, the situation does not seem encouraging from the Saudi Arabian side. There is a difference in the statements from Pakistan’s Foreign Office and that of the Saudi correspondent regarding Saudi Arabia’s views about peace dialogues with Iran. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi after the high-level visit to Saudi Arabia said ‘I found them responsive to give peace a chance. I found them responsive for engagement’. However Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said ‘With regard to mediation, we are not having any mediation. People come to us with ideas or suggestions and we give them our response. And our response is… here is what Iran needs to do and that’s it,’ al-Jubeir further responded. ‘We would like to see actions rather than words’.
This is a confusing situation, because there are speculations in the international community that Riyadh (Saudi oil facility attack) requested both Pakistan and Iraq to mediate the talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran after the US refused to take any military action against Iran. However, the Saudi media has denied the statements that it has invited any mediation. Saudi Arabia’s denial and change in its stance after the deployment of US troops on Saudi soil reflects affirmation of its policy aligned with US interests. Saudi Foreign Minister al-Jubeir on October 24, 2019 when asked about Iran’s demand to remove the sanctions before any dialogue responded, ‘As far as we’re concerned, maximum pressure is the only way’.
It brought in front an important aspect that after the US deployed its troops in KSA, the Saudis once again became more dependent on the US for security of their resources – following the Americans footstep. Due to their mutual rivalry with Iran, the US is persistent on the strategy of ‘maximum pressure’ on Iran. Tensions are likely to prevail even after the several attempts of intermediation, unless US lifts the sanctions on Iran so that it can resume its oil trade. Smooth Iran-US ties will ultimately resume JCPOA and the Iran’s nuclear deal with the US. This is not the first time that Pakistan has tried to solve the conflict and failed. Even countries other than Pakistan such as Iraq have also tried to bring the competitors on the table but all went in vein. The root cause needs to be addressed first, because unless the issue is not solved, the Arabs will be insecure from Iran’s nuclear program because of persistent deterrence. On the other side, nonstop sanctions will break Iran’s economic backbone. It is therefore, necessary to normalize Iran-US relations in order to create an environment of trust and bring the Saudis and Iranians on the table.
Although in this international status quo, the Middle Eastern region requires now to leave behind their past rivalries and rely upon major-powers. However, Pakistan’s effectiveness to bring parallel ends together proves the significance of the matter. The flame of this fire could fuel into a big war and will catch the neighboring countries into its rift, most importantly Pakistan. Finding a common ground at once is a difficult task even though Pakistan is capable to mediate productively in resolving intra-regional conflicts of the two Gulf States. Nonetheless Pakistan cannot get ahead in this attempt alone, unless the Saudi’s take their decisions on their own. Repetitive round of meeting may give some fruitful outcome, provided that Saudi Arabia should not come under American pressure and avoid western interference in regional conflict. Currently, the imminent chances of armed conflict have been delayed at least for the time being, which itself is a positive move to some extent.
Qurat ul Ain Hafeez is the Research Coordinator at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research. She has done her M.Phil in International Relations from the Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.