AN historic opportunity is presenting itself for Pakistan to reclaim its place as a leader in the Islamic bloc. Given the timber of the country’s leadership, however, it isn’t certain at all whether Islamabad can step up to the plate.
To understand and appreciate this opportunity one only need look at a collage of events in the region starting with developments in and around the Gulf. Saudi anxiety is now almost peaking with the Shia Houthis taking physical control of the Yemeni capital on its southern borders.
Coupled with this is the rise of Shia power in Iraq and the influence of Tehran over Baghdad which is being cemented by Iran’s help to its neighbour as it struggles to dislodge the self-styled Islamic State from the Iraqi territory it captured.
With its Shia minority, long oppressed by the Saudi regime, concentrated in the east of the kingdom with Iraq across the border in the northeast and Iran across the Gulf from eastern Saudi Arabia, the nervousness of the house of Al Saud is understandable.
Its brand of Islamic ideology has open and virulent differences with the state philosophy of the ‘Islamic Republic of Iran’ and the two countries have, in the past, left no stone unturned to undermine each other.
The latest was a call by King Abdullah (who recently died) to the United States to “cut off the head of the serpent” in a reference to Iran and its controversial nuclear programme.
As hectic negotiations in Geneva between Iran and the so-called P5+1 led by the US appear to be entering a decisive phase with optimism, no matter how cautious, of a deal, the Saudi hope and desire that Iran incur the wrath of the West including military action is close to being dashed.
Pakistan can either play to its strengths and contribute positively or succumb to the temptation of being a groupie of the Saudis.
The rise to the throne of King Salman after Abdullah’s death has seen a flurry of activity as ‘Sunni’ leaders of the region are being invited to Riyadh for consultations.
Among those who have visited/will visit after the current presence of the Pakistani prime minister are the Turkish, Egyptian, UAE and Jordanian leaders. Nawaz Sharif’s visit, followed by the Saudi ‘no-strings-attached’ gift of over a billion dollars when he was elected to office, has triggered speculation in the global media.
When the gift was made, reports suggested that this was a payoff for ‘military assistance’ including training for groups fighting the Iran-backed brutal Syrian regime and for despatching trained personnel to Bahrain where the monarchy was facing a revolt from the Shia-majority population.
The latest such reports suggest that now the Saudis are seeking three things from Pakistan. One, the provision of a ‘nuclear’ cover if Iran does actually make such weapons and two support and assistance to anti-Iran terrorist groups such as Jundullah and freedom to it to operate from Pakistani soil in Balochistan.
Lastly, it is being suggested, the Saudis also want Pakistani troops to check any possible advance by IS from its strongholds in Iraq and also to keep an eye on its restive eastern regions.
This isn’t the first time the Saudis have been so anxious with the possible development of nuclear weapons by a neighbour. In 1981 Israeli air force planes overflew Saudi airspace “undetected and unchallenged” to bomb an Iraqi nuclear reactor and returned safely to base via the same route.
In recent months, there has been some indication of cooperation between Saudi-backed groups fighting the Syrian regime and the Israeli intelligence such as in the assassination of a senior Lebanese Hezbollah commander and an official of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Syria.
This makes for an explosive situation in the region with Iran and its allies and the Saudis and their allies feeling threatened by one another and rightly so, given the hostility in each camp against the other.
In such a situation, Pakistan can either play to its strengths and demonstrate a statesman-like role or succumb to the temptation of being a groupie of the Saudis and create another explosive border and lose whatever leverage it could have with Tehran.
Pakistan is already reeling from the consequences of its decades-long policy of using non-state actors to further its national security objectives and now seems in the process of slowly changing such a course.
Any move to isolate a neighbour which isn’t hostile to Pakistan as part of a regional power game via foreign proxies operating from its soil can only be foolish, even suicidal.
If its leadership acts with vision, rather than as a party beholden to one of the sides in a tense region, there is a great opportunity Islamabad can serve as a bridge between Riyadh and Tehran.
The doubts and mutual, often ideologically rooted, animosity between Iran and Saudi Arabia is making the region resemble a tinderbox. But if Iran can show ‘pragmatism’ to enter negotiations with the US, which it used to call the Great Satan, and Saudis tacitly be on the same page as Israel, opportunities for agreements must exist.
There can be only two choices before Pakistan and nothing else. It could either play a mature role in mediating some sort of de-escalation between the two Gulf oil-producing giants or it should stay well away from the conflict.
A proactive role carries few risks as the Saudis trust the Pakistani civil and military leadership and some of Iran’s worries could be put to rest by the extradition of the Jundullah leader recently arrested in Quetta and a crackdown on the group to restrict its freedom to operate from (Pakistani) Balochistan.
Geographically too, Pakistan is ideally placed to play this role. It could have untold benefits in defusing an explosive situation at home too. Does its leadership have the vision and the desire to see this is another question.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
Published in Dawn March 7th , 2015