ISLAMABAD: Since the impasse between Saudi Arabia and Iran is a sensitive issue that needs deft handling, Pakistan cannot commit what role it will be playing because it has friendly ties with both countries, the PM’s adviser on Foreign Affairs said on Tuesday.

But the explanation offered by Sartaj Aziz in the National Assembly did not cut mustard with the opposition, which promptly rejected it.

At the insistence of the opposition benches, Mr Aziz said in a policy statement: “The Saudi foreign minister is expected to visit Pakistan on Thursday. The government will be able to make a detailed statement on the issue after meeting him.”

However, in the same breath, he added that Pakistan believed in playing a positive and balanced role in its foreign policy “and our foremost priority should be securing the country’s national interest”.

In his brief statement, the adviser also highlighted the fact that the Saudi-Iranian rivalry wasn’t new, nor was this the first time the two had severed diplomatic ties. “There have been a number of such incidents over the past 40 years, as the two countries are involved in proxy tussles against each other,” he said.


Sartaj Aziz tells lawmakers a strategy will be hammered out after talks with Saudi FM


But Mr Aziz did accept the fact that with the emergence of the militant Islamic State (IS) group and given the vested interests of global powers, tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia could have a far-reaching impact over the region in general and Pakistan in particular.

Mr Aziz said: “The rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia has been dominating the situation in the region for a long time, with many ups and downs. But this time, the crisis is more serious because of several geopolitical factors and the rising threat of extremism and terrorism.”

Like any other responsible state, he said, Pakistan was also concerned about the escalation of tensions between the two countries. “Most western countries have highlighted the danger of an escalation in the sectarian divide in the Muslim world and have called for restraint and a de-escalation of tensions.”

The adviser also agreed to the opposition’s demand for an in-camera session to explain why the government had come up with such a measured response.

But led by Leader of the Opposition Khursheed Ahmed Shah, parliamentary parties sitting on the opposition benches called upon the government to provide something more concrete. “We have asked what role the government intends to play in this crisis, because in case it is further aggravated, Pakistan will directly suffer,” Mr Shah said, terming the policy statement a repetition of what the Foreign Office had already said about the issue.

PTI chief whip Dr Shireen Mazari was more hard-hitting in her remarks and asked if the government was waiting for the arrival of the Saudi foreign minister to make its policy on the issue. “This is the time to act and take the leadership role, rather than repenting afterwards when others fill the vacuum,” she said.

However, the government found an unlikely ally in the form of PTI ally Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, who said, “Nobody is waiting for Pakistan to play a lead role in the current crisis. The best the government can do is to keep the national interest as its top priority.” He said that far bigger powers were involved in what was happening in the Middle East, where even the Organisation of Islamic Countries had proven ineffectual.

Earlier, PkMAP chief Mehmood Khan Achakzai reiterated his stance that the elected representatives should be the source of the country’s foreign and defence policies. He warned the government to be very careful in tackling the Saudi-Iranian controversy because it had the potential to create unrest in the streets of Pakistan.

In his speech, Mr Achakzai also warned that “states within states” inside both India and Pakistan were against peace between the two neighbours. “It is strange that when somebody visits Lahore, terrorists strike at Mazar-i-Sharif and Pathankot soon afterwards,” in an obvious reference to Indian PM Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Lahore.

Baqir Sajjad Syed adds: Adviser on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz also met Iranian Ambassador Mehdi Honardoost on Tuesday.

The meeting was described by the Foreign Office as a courtesy call, paid by the new Iranian envoy on foreign adviser.

“[Mr Aziz] congratulated Ambassador Honardoost on his appointment as the Ambassador of the Islamic Republic of Iran to Pakistan. He hoped that the ambassador’s tenure in Pakistan would be successful and fulfilling, both in professional and personal terms,” a statement said.

The Foreign Office had, a day earlier, criticised the ransacking of the Saudi embassy in Tehran as “unfortunate, deeply regrettable” and a violation of international norms. The issue reportedly came up for discussion during Mr Aziz’s meeting with Mr Honardoost.

It could not be confirmed if Mr Aziz shared his plan for ending tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia with the Iranian envoy.

Published in Dawn, January 6th, 2016

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