Pakistan cajoles Iran to join Saudi alliance

Published: April 24, 2017
Attorney General of Pakistan Ashtar Ausaf. PHOTO:

Attorney General of Pakistan Ashtar Ausaf. PHOTO:

Attorney General of Pakistan Ashtar Ausaf. PHOTO: Attorney General of Pakistan Ashtar Ausaf. PHOTO:

ISLAMABAD: Although it has the potential to derail Pakistan’s relationship with its key Muslim neighbor and have far-reaching strategic and domestic implications, the country’s civil and military authorities decided to join the Saudi-led military alliance with the hope that it may foster unity in the Islamic world.

Towards this end, Pakistan has launched a diplomatic initiative to convince Iran to join the 41-nation coalition and bring about a rapprochement between Tehran and Riyadh. The Express Tribune has learnt through credible sources that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had given a special task to Attorney General Ashtar Ausaf.

Pakistan, Iran work to heal Saudi alliance rift

Ausaf, who is considered a close confidant of the prime minister, last month travelled to Riyadh where he held a series of meetings including with Saudi Crown Prince to discuss the issue. More significantly, the attorney general is also scheduled to travel to Tehran in coming days as part of quiet diplomacy to ensure that Pakistan’s relations with Iran are not affected by the decision on the Saudi alliance.

“We are trying to facilitate some kind of rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia,” said an official familiar with the development. He conceded, however, that bringing the Middle Eastern rivals on the same page “is a daunting task indeed.”

Even so, he said Pakistan would continue to strive for unity among Muslim countries, particularly between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The official, who requested not to be quoted on the record since he was not authorised to speak to the media, added that tension free ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia would make Pakistan’s job a lot easier.

When former army chief General (retd) Raheel Sharif accepted Saudi Arabia’s offer to head the military alliance, he did so on the condition that other Muslim countries, including Iran, Syria and Iraq, would be invited to join it. Before the government formally granted him a no-objection certificate (NOC) on Friday, the biggest concern Pakistani decision-makers had was that the allowing the former army chief to lead the alliance would antagonise Iran and would harm bilateral ties.

Gen Raheel off to S Arabia to lead Islamic alliance

That was the reason that both civil and military authorities went out of the way to placate Iran’s apprehensions. In a matter of six weeks, current army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa twice met Iran’s Ambassador Mehdi Honardoost to discuss the subject. In fact, the day Gen (retd) Raheel was issued the NOC, the Iranian envoy was in the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi where Gen Qamar categorically assured him that the move would not affect Pakistan’s ties with Iran at any cost.

Although Iran has shown reluctance, after Pakistan’s concerted efforts it has indicated that it may soften its stance provided the alliance’s real object is in fact to fight terrorist groups. Tehran is wary of the Saudi initiative on the grounds that it would eventually be used by the Kingdom to further its own ‘sectarian’ agenda in the Middle East. Both countries have accused each other of backing certain proxies in Yemen, Syria and Iraq.

Despite its decision to join the alliance, Islamabad does not want to be seen as taking sides. Sources said Pakistan made it clear to Saudi Arabia that it would pull out of the alliance if it turned out to be a sectarian front.

At the same time Pakistan informed Iran that presence of Gen (retd) Raheel in the alliance should be seen positively.

“It is good for both Pakistan and Iran as long as Gen (retd) Raheel is part of the alliance,” the official said. He insisted that the former army chief would not support any initiative that could hurt Pakistan’s strategic interests, including ties with Iran, in any way.

However, Gen (retd) Raheel would be facing a real challenge to maintain that delicate balance as a senior Saudi official recently told Wall Street Journal that the military alliance could also take action against groups such as Houthis in Yemen. Saudi Arabia considers the Houthis as terrorists while Iran disputes that characterisation.

Observers are also skeptical of Pakistan’s efforts making any tangible impact since the real purpose of the Saudi initiative is far from clear.

“The contours of the so-called alliance are not very clear,” commented senior analyst Zahid Hussain. “If there is a standing army, what will be the objective of that? If it is meant to fight terrorism then they don’t need a standing army,” he argued.

A senior government official, however, insisted that staying out of the military alliance would have damaged Pakistan’s interests more. He also strongly defended the decision to allow Gen (retd) Raheel to head it.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 24th, 2017.

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Reader Comments (15)

  • Ghulam Habib
    Apr 24, 2017 - 9:22AM

    The Saudi-led alliance is basically a reaction to Iran’s attempt to encircle KSA through its proxies in Iraq, Syria, and the Yemen rebels. Pakistan is there mainly to defend Saudi territorial integrity.
    All diplomacy to assauge the Iran’s “apprehensions” is to fail but it must be undertaken to keep Iran confused.
    If Iran gives up its imperialist ambitions, the alliance would die a natural death.Recommend

    Apr 24, 2017 - 10:12AM

    @Ghulam Habib . Iran’s imperialist ambitions !!! hey buddy I did not know imperialism does not exist in KSA. Take a balance approach. Both countries have their proxies. Pakistan should put in order their own house. It is getting hard to defend own territorial integrity , you talking to defend others.Recommend

  • Feroz
    Apr 24, 2017 - 10:29AM

    This story is a tale of propaganda to lower the fallout in Pakistan of the decision to join the Saudi military alliance. Pakistan is only joining this project for material gains and it is the Saudis who alone decide not just goals and aims but also who can participate. Employee cannot conjure the role of employer.Recommend

  • scotchpak
    Apr 24, 2017 - 10:42AM

    Pakistan should have their head examinedRecommend

  • Tyggar
    Apr 24, 2017 - 11:36AM

    Good luck in asking Iran to join an alliance against itselfRecommend

  • Pakistani
    Apr 24, 2017 - 1:21PM


    I kinda agree with you.

    Iran and Arab backed proxies in Pakistan have created deep divisions here. It is a real credit to Pakistanis that we have remained loyal to Pakistan (even though Iran has used some Pakistanis to spy in Germany and fight their war in Syria).

    We need to keep well away from this Iran / Saudi conflict, but what I would say is that our relations with Iran were much better when the Shah was there. These mullahs can not be trusted; they are allied to IndiaRecommend

  • Ravian
    Apr 24, 2017 - 2:23PM

    After securing excellent retirement packages in civilian semi-government departments, exclusively owned business entities, the area of influence has been extended to the Arab countries. (avoided naming names to get the comments published)Recommend

  • PK
    Apr 24, 2017 - 3:55PM

    I agree with @Ghulam Habib. I fail to understand that people have no knowledge of their demographics. Iran is a Shia state while KSA is a Sunni state. They will never agree on the same thing. They have different ideologies. Iran, an always dirty player, is looking to revive her persian ambitions.

    Pakistan has done a good job in keeping away from this just because of feeding “Pakistan” first and moving them away from religion. Remember, there is no concept of “nationalism” in Islam. Eventually they will have to decide when Sunni world will go against Iran, sooner or later.Recommend

  • So
    Apr 24, 2017 - 4:45PM

    So, who’s trying to get to throttle the other. Who is helping Assad to kill hundreds of thousands? Who’s has proxy states than just groups to resist? So, who is reacting to whom?Recommend

  • Adil
    Apr 24, 2017 - 4:54PM

    Conceptually, yes, there is no nationalism in Islam but Iran has been a nation for centuries before Islam came to Iran.
    Iran has been using religion to support its nationalism from wherein are the roots of its imperialism.Recommend

  • partisan
    Apr 24, 2017 - 5:11PM

    Iran wants everything its own way. It aligns with India but does not want Pakistan to have the fruits of supporting Saudi Arabia. To show genuine friendship, Iran should match the funds that SA has granted to Pakistan as well as provide Pakistan with oil on concessional terms. Iran has petrodollars like Saudi Arabia it can afford to help Pakistan in its needs of the hour. Recommend

  • Faisal
    Apr 24, 2017 - 5:25PM

    We need to stop wasting our time on pleasing Iran. Iran is ruled by a theocratic regime which only wants complete submission from others. Blind followers of the Khomenist regime would like Pakistan to become a slave to Iran but we shouldn’t bow down to their wishes.

    Middle East is important for us not only due to our economic interests but also because any desirability in the region will destabilize Pakistan. Iran’s policy of using sectarianism as a tool to forward foreign policy agenda and to keep destabilizing the region to expand its influence must be discouraged through any necessary means.Recommend

  • James Micheal
    Apr 25, 2017 - 7:10AM

    I think rather than Iran Joining this alliance an India Pakistan alliance will be more possible

  • Ghulam Habib
    Apr 25, 2017 - 3:17PM

    @ET: Kindly help me with my right to reply to someone who has written to me.
    You are right that KSA has proxies too. But they do not surround Iran like Iran has surrounded KSA with its proxies. Neither KSA nor its proxies threaten Iran.
    Again, the Saudi-led alliance is a defensive measure and a reaction to Iran’s policies.
    As regards, Saudi imperialism it cannot even begin to compare with that of Iran. The latter’s imperialism begins in centuries before the Arabs even knew statecraft or had a state. Recommend

  • UJ
    Apr 25, 2017 - 11:27PM

    Why is Pakistan getting involved in this alliance?Recommend

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