Islamabad must resist Riyadh’s pressure to turn its back on Tehran
Last week, retired Pakistan Army chief General Raheel Sharif left for Saudi Arabia to join the Gulf kingdom’s NATO-like 41-nation military coalition. The controversial move has raised questions about Islamabad’s stance on the allegedly anti-Iran bloc, with many observers wondering if Pakistan would be willing to engage its military forces against the neighboring nation at Riyadh’s behest. Current scuttlebutt holds that attorney-general Ashtar Ausaf Ali has left for Saudi Arabia to initiate a lower-level diplomatic move to get the Gulf kingdom to extend an invitation to Iran to join the coalition.
Pakistan has a guilty conscience over Iran going back to 1997 when it backed a Taliban attack on Mazar-e-Sharif in the north of Afghanistan that resulted in the deaths of Iranian diplomats there. Last year, Pakistan’s Parliament turned down a Saudi-U.A.E. call to send troops to Yemen and would have liked to block General Sharif’s appointment to the military coalition in a bid to patch up with Iran. But the current Middle East scenario leaves little room for negotiation, as Sunni Arabs take on the Shia in Iraq and Syria while Iran-backed local militias fight the Islamic State. This transforms the Saudi-Iran-Pakistan relation into a lethal triangle.
Global foreign policy shifts are also a factor. U.S. President Donald Trump has signaled his desire to backtrack on predecessor Barack Obama’s initiatives, including the nuclear deal that reined in Tehran’s controversial program.
If Trump reneges on the deal, Iran will be freed from any obligation of verifiable restraint and likely opt for the bomb, putting Arabs across the Gulf under threat. If that situation comes to pass, Pakistan might well be pressured into helping Saudi Arabia nuclearize as a deterrent; nullifying Islamabad’s latest peace shuttle.