ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Imran Khan will on Sunday launch his effort for defusing tensions in the Gulf by travelling to Tehran.
Mr Khan, who announced his intentions to undertake mediation between Saudi Arabia and Iran last month on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session, will meet Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani in Tehran.
During the meetings, Mr Khan would focus on issues relating to peace and security in the Gulf. However, he would also touch upon bilateral matters and other regional developments including Kashmir.
There have been some last-minute changes in PM Khan’s itinerary for the trip. Instead of travelling to Tehran on Saturday night, he is going there on Sunday morning. Moreover, he would not travel onwards to Saudi Arabia, as indicated by officials in their private discussions earlier, and would instead return home the same day.
The adjustments in the plan happened because Riyadh is readying to receive Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday. Mr Khan would, therefore, visit Riyadh sometime next week. A source said there is a possible window for the Saudi trip on Tuesday.
The FO in a statement said PM Khan was undertaking the visit to Tehran “as part of his initiative to promote peace and security in the region”.
The New York Times and certain other media organisations had earlier claimed that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman had requested Mr Khan to mediate between his country and Iran to stave off war. Mr Khan had, moreover, himself at a press conference in New York on Sept 24 claimed that US President Donald Trump had asked him to help in defusing tensions and he immediately went to meet President Rouhani.
However, the FO in statement on Saturday credited Mr Khan for the peace initiative. It said: “The initiative for possibility of dialogue between KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia] and Iran, the two brotherly countries of Pakistan, is an effort by the prime minister of Pakistan for ensuring peace in the region.”
The statement denied that the crown prince had delivered a message for the Iranian leaders or even asked Mr Khan to play a mediatory role with Iran.
Iran has, meanwhile, said it was open to any mediation or direct talks with Saudi Arabia.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in an interview with TRT while talking about PM Khan’s initiative said: “We’ve never rejected any intermediary... We’ve always been open to mediation, and we’ve always been open to direct talks with our Saudi neighbours.”
Emphasising the importance of dialogue for resolving outstanding issues, he said, “We don’t have any choice but to talk to each other.”
President Rouhani had last month at a ceremony held on the occasion of Iran-Iraq war anniversary and later in his speech at the UNGA proposed a regional peace plan. Iran, however, conditions any peace initiative to withdrawal of foreign troops from the region.
The US announcement of sending 3,000 additional troops to Saudi Arabia and an attack on Iranian oil tanker off coast the Saudi coast could make progress in mediation even more difficult.
Problems in Iran-Saudi Arabia ties have a long history and are very complicated. However, the tensions between the arch regional rivals aggravated sharply after the start of the Arab Spring in 2011 and the changes in Saudi leadership following the death of King Abdullah in 2005.
A researcher at the Islamabad Policy Institute, a local think tank, Mobin Jafar Mir said: “Saudi Arabia and Iran have been on the opposite sides of the geopolitical divide since the Islamic Revolution in Iran and their rivalry has become more acrimonious with the passage of time because of its sectarian dimension and domestic politics of the two countries. Both are now facing off each other in a number of conflicts across the region — namely in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and Bahrain — and there is a growing fear of a direct military conflict between them, which, if it happens, could have serious consequences for regional peace and security.”
Pakistan has at least on four occasions in the past tried mediation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but without much success.
Published in Dawn, October 13th, 2019