It’s been a particularly interesting week for Pakistani diplomacy. In a rare display, both Nawaz Sharif, the country’s prime minister, and General Raheel Sharif (no relation), the chief of army staff, jointly traveled to Saudi Arabia and Iran, in what was billed as an attempt by Islamabad to mediate between the quarreling Middle Eastern giants.
Saudi Arabia’s execution of Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent Shia Sheikh, on January 2 led to massive protests against the Saudi embassy, which was ransacked by Iranian protesters. The incident led to the cessation of formal diplomatic ties between the two countries and intensified the underlying politico-sectarian divides in the Middle East.
Pakistan’s role in the Saudi-Iran split isn’t entirely obvious. The country is a Sunni-majority state with the second-largest Shia population of any Muslim-majority state after Iran. Pakistan shares close historical and diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia, but shares a border with Iran. For Islamabad, maintaining good ties with both Riyadh and Iran is a priority for entirely different reasons.
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s leaders have no particular intention to be seen as siding with either Saudi Arabia or Iran and their highly sectarian geopolitical feud for influence in the Middle East. Nevertheless, ahead of the Nawaz and Raheel trips, the Pakistani foreign office issued a statement noting that “Pakistan is deeply concerned at the recent escalation of tensions between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
Against this backdrop, the two Sharifs traveled this week, first to Riyadh and then to Tehran. In Saudi Arabia, where they arrived on Monday, the Pakistani leaders essentially continued the conversation that had been initiated by the Saudis days after the fallout from Nimr al-Nimr’s execution.
Mohammed bin Salman, the Kingdom’s deputy crown prince and defense minister, met with Pakistani officials, receiving assurances from Pakistan that it would stand with Riyadh. Gen. Sharif had assured Salman that Pakistan would stand with Saudi Arabia. In Riyadh, Nawaz Sharif exchanged views with the Saudi leadership about regional issues, including the diplomatic crisis with Iran. Sharif urged restraint and encouraged a peaceful solution to the dispute between the two states.
On Tuesday, the two Sharifs traveled to Tehran where they met with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Their arrival in Iran came days after the international agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear program, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, was implemented. Additionally, they arrived in Tehran just days after local officials on both sides of the Iran-Pakistan border revealed that the strategically important port cities of Chabahar in Iran and Gwadar in Pakistan would become “sister cities,” connected by a railway track. In Tehran, as in Riyadh, the two Sharifs listened to Iranian concerns and consulted on a range of regional issues.
What’s interesting is that Pakistan is trying to position itself as an honest broker of sorts between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Nawaz Sharif’s government is taking a gamble on the idea that it can broker talks between the two Middle Eastern giants while avoiding getting drawn into the geopolitical-sectarian contest that so bitterly divides Iran and Saudi Arabia. Pakistan is experimenting with shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East. After his meeting with Rouhani, Nawaz told the press that “Pakistan has conveyed Saudi Arabia’s concerns to Iran, and will pass on Iran’s concerns to Saudi Arabia.”
For now–not knowing what was said behind closed doors in Tehran or Riyadh–it appears that both sides are eager to work with Pakistan. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia, at Pakistan’s behest, will appoint special envoys to meet with Pakistan’s own “focal person” on the issue. Based on Nawaz Sharif’s comments after his first attempt of shuttle diplomacy, the impetus for Pakistan to undertake this diplomatic initiative is concern about fighting terrorism. “We are fighting a common enemy that is terrorism. Together we can fight and defeat this menace. It cannot be fought separately,” he said.
That statement in particular is odd for a variety of reasons. As is apparent from recent op-eds by the Iranian and Saudi foreign ministers in the New York Times, each sees the other as a sponsor of terrorism in the Middle East. Pakistan, meanwhile, has its own internal struggle against terrorists hostile to the state (such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and its associated acts). Pakistan talks about Islamic brotherhood and “Muslim unity,” but it’s unclear if it has a realistic road map to bridge the serious rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Perhaps, above all, Islamabad’s concerns about an intensifying Saudi-Iran split have to do with its own sectarian struggle. Violence against Pakistan’s Shia community has grown at the hands of Deobandi extremist groups, who take their inspiration from Saudi Arabia’s puritanical spin on Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism. Meanwhile, some prominent voices in Pakistan–even from within the country’s local and national government–see undue Iranian influence at play among Pakistani Shias. Pakistan has seen the post-1979 contest for supremacy in the Middle East between Iran and Saudi Arabia play out at home and is eager to avoid any additional sectarian escalation at home.
The one reassuring sign of this week’s shuttle diplomacy comes with the shared itinerary between Nawaz and Raheel. The General’s participation suggests that the Pakistani army, which is seen as the locus of control for the country’s foreign and security policy, buys in to the prime minister’s vision of helping Riyadh and Tehran bridge their differences. The Pakistani military’s interests in the Iran-Saudi Arabia divide are fairly skewed toward Saudi Arabia, which has historically been an important financial benefactor.
Pakistan received a $1.5 billion “unconditional grant” from Saudi Arabia in 2014, which helped the country service its debts at a time of financial difficulty. (Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has personal stakes as well–Riyadh hosted him in exile after he was removed from power by Pervez Musharraf in 1999.) Saudi-Pakistani military cooperation is advanced and Riyadh even included Pakistan in its “Islamic military alliance,” to Pakistan’s surprise initially.
If push came to shove, there is little reason to doubt that Pakistan’s military would stand by Saudi Arabia instead of Iran. That decision isn’t one that would be taken lightly and, based on Pakistan’s moves this week, it appears that neither Sharif is particularly interested in having matters escalate to that point. Pakistan’s relations with India and Afghanistan are complicated and fraught enough that it doesn’t need difficulties with a third neighbor.
Time will tell if Pakistan’s decision to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia will be successful. Nawaz and Raheel’s first attempt at shuttle diplomacy suggests that both Riyadh and Tehran will buy in to the process. Unfortunately, the “hard” part of this attempt at deft diplomacy–getting the Iranians and Saudis to work out their differences–lies ahead.