Pakistan left with limited options in Saudi-led Islamic military alliance

Published: May 26, 2017
The government must adhere to the policy of cooperating against terrorism only. PHOTO: PID/FILE

The government must adhere to the policy of cooperating against terrorism only. PHOTO: PID/FILE

US President Donald Trump, addressing the Arab-Islamic-American summit in the capital of Saudi Arabia, urged Arab leaders to “drive out” terrorism from their countries on Sunday in a speech that put the burden on the region to combat militant groups. Irrespective of the debate about not allowing Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to speak on this occasion, the outcome of the moot is being considered as a serious setback for Pakistan’s foreign policy. Pakistan has to decide, it is willing to jeopardise its relations with Iran for Saudi Arabia.

The two-day Riyadh summit focused on Isolating Iran as it paid attention to countering terrorism. In fact, it portrayed an impression to the world that terrorism and Iranian regimes come together. During the summit, President Trump clearly talked about isolating Iran, which followed a historic $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia. While King Salman, who has also recently established an Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT), openly blamed Iran for promoting terrorism and insecurity in the region.

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Pakistan became a part of the controversial 34-state, Saudi-led military alliance earlier this year, and former army chief General (retd) Raheel Sharif has gotten the nod from the centre to lead IMAFT. Several countries from Asia, Africa and the Arab world are involved in the alliance, but Saudi Arabia’s main regional rival Iran is not. IMAFT’s joint operations centre has been established in Riyadh.

Observers believe that newest Saudi-led block is to counter Iran’s growing influence in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Iran, which also shares a 900-kilometre border with Pakistan, has serious reservations over General (retd) Raheel’s selection as the head of the Saudi-led military alliance of Muslim countries to combat terrorism.

Pakistan’s decision to join the alliance was followed by claims that Islamabad would work to create harmony between Riyadh and Tehran. Many at home criticised Pakistan’s take on it. The opposition said that joining the IMAFT was against a resolution adopted by the parliament that barred Pakistan from indulging in the ongoing Middle Eastern conflict.  In 2015, a unanimous resolution passed by a special joint session of parliament urging it to stay out of the conflict in Yemen, where the Saudi-led coalition was bombing Houthi rebels.

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Following Trump’s address at the Riyadh summit, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has clarified that stability could not be achieved in the Middle East without Tehran’s help.

When it is obvious that the Islamic military alliance is not friendly towards Iran while Syria and Iraq are also not part of it, the dream Muslim countries on one platform against terrorism seems to be a tough task to achieve. US, Russian, and Israeli involvement is further complicating the entire issue.

Dangers for Pakistan

Saudi Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman has said the new alliance would coordinate efforts against militants in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Afghanistan and this should be alarming for Pakistan because to varying reasons.

Firstly, Pakistan cannot afford to corner Iran by damaging its bilateral terms. The geopolitical situation in the region are also creating difficulties for Pakistan as three of its four neighbours – India, Iran and Afghanistan – are accusing Pakistan of letting terrorists use its soils for harbouring attacks in the neighbouring countries. The situation can deteriorate in the near future if they join their hands against Islamabad. Pakistan has always contested US pressure that it was not taking ‘adequate action’ against terrorist groups.

On May 23, US Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) Director Lieutenant General Vincent Stewart warned that India was considering punitive actions against Pakistan for its alleged support to cross-border terrorism.

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Secondly, in the case of a possible division amongst the member Islamic countries, the deal will worsen the Sunni-Shia rift in Pakistan when incidents of sectarian violence are frequent particular in Balochistan province.

Lastly, the entire crisis does not only involve Muslim countries, it has also now dragged Washington into a confrontation with Russia in the six-year-long Syrian war. Here the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, the Russian-backed Syrian military, and Free Syrian Army rebels backed by the United States are fighting against the Islamic State. When Iran and Russia want Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to stay in power, Washington struggles for his elimination. The US-Russia relations at a new low since the deadly gas attack in Syria on April 4, 2017.

The Saudis are also suspected of supporting a variety of groups fighting the Assad regime Syria and, under the circumstances, Pakistan will be willing to avoid any involvement in these countries.

Difficulties in Saudi-Iran reconciliation

The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran is fuelling conflicts across the region. The two regional powers have been at loggerheads since the Iranian Revolution in 1979 when the western-backed regime was ousted. The ideology of Iran, coupled with allegedly supporting certain militant elements in the Middle East, has caused a rift between the two nations. Regional conflicts such as in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, can also be blamed for complicating bilateral and diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Their rift is not religious but it has been manifested along the sectarian lines, desiring a strong influence in the region. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran are being accused of supporting militants in the region.

Pakistan cajoles Iran to join Saudi alliance

Iran’s Ambassador Mehdi Honardoost met Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa twice in April in an apparent effort by the two sides to iron out differences on Pakistan’s move to allow the former army chief to head the Saudi-led counter-terrorism alliance. Pakistan also cajoled Iran by launching a diplomatic initiative to convince Tehran to join the coalition and bring about a rapprochement between Tehran and Riyadh, but nothing came of it.

In addition, the US and Israel have been considering Iran a global threat. Speaking at the Riyadh summit, Trump had said that Iran was responsible for instability in the region and was funding, arming and training militias that spread destruction and chaos.

Iran-backed Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah on May 25 also criticised Saudi Arabia, saying it was on a losing path to more bloodshed in its struggle with Iran and instead urged Riyadh to seek dialogue and negotiations with Tehran. How Pakistan will deal will both Saudi Arabia and Iran is a real challenge.

Can Pakistan be neutral?

It is tough for Pakistan to convince Saudi Arabia and Iran to keep their ideologies aside and not interfere in each other’s affairs, particularly in the presence of influential players like the US and Russia in the region. Pakistan has to decide that whether it should withdrawing from the IMAFT and damages its relations with a close ally like Saudi Arabia, or whether it can annoy  Iran by being a part of it.

The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government must adhere to the policy of cooperating against terrorism only in the Saudi-led block being a neutral partner. It should not be a careless decision because Pakistan’s position in the region will be at stake. Parliament seems to be the best place to take a unanimous decision about Pakistan future plan.

Saudi Arabia, Iran and other stakeholders must be taken into confidence before using the option of ‘neutrality but cooperation against terrorism’ for which the chances are slim.


Imdad Hussain is an Islamabad-based journalist specialising in diplomatic and security issues

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Reader Comments (17)

  • Faisal
    May 26, 2017 - 4:33PM

    What “relationship” with Iran are we talking about? 1. Iran letting Indian spies into Pakistan? 2. Iranian smugglers working with Pakistani smugglers to break the law on the Balochistan border and attack policemen? 3. Iranian army firing rockets unprovoked into Pakistan? 4. Iran’s refusal to ever condemn India on its occupation of Kashrmir? 5. The 2,000 Pakistanis working in Iran v/s the 2 million Pakistanis working in Saudi Arabia happily? Pakistan should get closer to the

  • Shafqat
    May 26, 2017 - 5:05PM

    Pakistan should be neutral. If still Pakistan wants at any side then Iran’s option will give good benefits in long term.Recommend

  • qayoom ul hassan shah
    May 26, 2017 - 5:14PM

    I agree with you.Pakistan should not join any alliance,at the cost of her own security and stability.Pakistan being a part of anti terrorist alliance in strict terms is a good idea.But involving herself in any kind of fight,that is all about political gains and control of middle east,can be harmful to Pakistan.Pakistan shares a long border with Iran and Iran has always supported Pakistan as far as Kashmir issue is concerned.Now if Pakistan goes against the interests of Iran,Iran would have not be bound to think about the interests Vis a Vis Kashmir issue.And in case of any conflict with India,non friendly terms with Iran can be very harmful.Pakistan already has an unstable western border with Afghanistan,thanks to India-Afghanistan govt alliance.In such a situation Pakistan cannot afford her border with Iran also to become unstable by offending Iran and letting India take undue advantage of all that.Since Pakistan doesn’t have any such issue with Saudi Arabia.It is better to keep Saudi Arabia in good humor but not to get involved to the point of offending Iran.Pakistan should get involved but not at the cost of her own security and foreign relation.Iran and Saudi Arabia are both important muslim countries.Pakistan need cordial relationship with both of them.Supporting one country against the other would be biggest blunder in the long run.Pakistan should get involved in issues,which concern,both Iran and Saudi Arabia and be helpful to both.Recommend

    May 26, 2017 - 5:21PM

    Very informative analysis. One thing clearly emerges that all Muslim countries in the middle east are ridden with violence and support terror groups for political objectives. This is quite threatening for the world and may also cause serious concerns for India and Muslim countries of south east AsiaRecommend

  • Yamuri
    May 26, 2017 - 5:28PM

    @Faisal Your arguments are utterly nonnsense. Iran and Pakistan have much more in common than Pak and SaudiRecommend

  • Mussa
    May 26, 2017 - 5:32PM

    Faisal…well said….Pakistan has no real relationship with Iran. Pakistan is well off staying closer to Middle East….Recommend

  • qayoom ul hassan shah
    May 26, 2017 - 6:10PM

    As far as i know,Iran has always been supportive to Pakistan regarding Kashmir issue.I am from Kashmir valley and we hold Iran in great regard for her support.Even PressTv,the news channel from Iran,has shown lot of sympathy for Kashmiris and Kashmir cause…Instead of Involving USA,Saudi Arabia should sort out her differences with Iran herself and through OIC forum.Fighting each other for supermacy and control of middle east in not in the interest of Muslim Ummah….May Allah show us the right path..AmeenRecommend

  • salman
    May 26, 2017 - 6:23PM

    Historically Iran has never been our friend. They always prefer India over Pakistan. While Saudi Arabia has always stood by us in difficult times. This is the first time that the are asking our moral and tactical support and we cannot shy away. Pakistan must not sacrifice Saudi and UAE friendship. Spirituality also we consider Saudi’s as our brothers, while Iran in any forum never supported us. The Shia community in Pakistan must also understand that it’s the country first and the must agree to it in the best inter of Pakistan.Recommend

  • Faisal
    May 26, 2017 - 6:48PM

    really? Iran and Pakistan have more in common than Pakistan and Arabia? Pls. do enlighten us. From my side: 1. Saudi Arabia has always supported Pakistan generously when Pakistan faced a financial crunch; but Iran has NEVER contributed a single riyal, rupee or dollar to help Pakistan. 2. When India tested its nuclear weapons in 1998 and started threatening Pakistan, then Pakistan had no choice but to do its own tests and Saudi offered financial assistance in the aftermath of sanctions! Whereas Iran objected to the tests done by Pakistan saying it was done in Balochistan close to Iranian border but Iran being the internationally isolated country that it is since the 1970s, it didn’t succeed. 3. Saudi Arabia has funded numerous roads, bridges and hospitals in Pakistan. But Iran hasn’t funded anything for common people of Pakistan. Recommend

  • Chacha Peshoweria
    May 26, 2017 - 10:02PM

    Okay! Keep kissing the rear end of Saudi Arabia and you will end up in religio-fascist authoritarianism. Good Luck!Recommend

    May 27, 2017 - 10:07AM

    I agree with the author. Do allow Parliament to take decisions…Recommend

  • BrainBro
    May 27, 2017 - 7:52PM

    Openly going against Iran may cause Shia-inspired separatist movements in Pakistan. So, tread lightly, as it can cause Syria-like situation, if matters go out of control.Recommend

  • ajeet
    May 28, 2017 - 4:53AM

    Regarding CPEC, I have full confidence of Pakistani ability to mess it up than Chinese ability to get it done.Recommend

  • Ravi
    May 28, 2017 - 8:50AM

    @Faisal: is this your definition of friendship, who gives you more alms? Have some pride in your country!Recommend

  • Ahmad Rafiq
    May 28, 2017 - 10:44AM

    How can you even compare Iran With Saudi Arabia ?

    Is Iran giving employment to 2 million Pakistanis ? Did Iran help Pakistan become a Nuclear state ? Did Iran help Pakistan on the Kashmir issue and the Indo-Pak wars ? Did Iran help Pakistan remove the sanctions on Pakistan put by US post nuclear test era ? Does Iran give substantial amount of free oil to Pakistan ? Does Iran give substantial amount of free monetary aid to Pakistan ?

    How can you even compare Iran with KSA ?Recommend

  • Khan
    May 28, 2017 - 2:42PM

    I am strictly against Pakistan joining this alliance. We already have a lot of conflicts and extremists, this alliance is a sectarian anti-shia alliance. This may expand the already deadly sunni-shia sectarian conflict. Recommend

  • abid
    May 29, 2017 - 11:07PM

    PAKISTAN, should be careful while joing THE SAUDI ALLIANCE.

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