Home Iran-Saudi Tensions: Pakistan the Peacemaker?

Iran-Saudi Tensions: Pakistan the Peacemaker?

If politics makes strange bedfellows, geopolitics seems to have even stranger match (peace) makers. After shuttling between Islamabad and Kabul with US and Chinese representatives in tow in its attempts to bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table, Pakistan (with shaky credentials) is now looking to play the peacemaker in the Middle East.


The events of the last few months in the Middle East have widened regional fautlines and raised the anxiety levels between Saudi Arabia and Iran. After getting bogged down with its misadventure in Yemen, Riyadh had announced the creation of a thirty-four-member Islamic anti-terror coalition, then it inflamed sentiments by executing the Shia cleric Shaykh Nimr al-Nimr, which resulted in the Saudi embassy being attacked in Tehran, and finally the US and EU lifted major nuclear-related sanctions on Iran under a deal opposed by the Saudis.


As sectarian tensions were threatening to boil over, the two Sharifs, Nawaz and Raheel were in Riyadh and Tehran to broker reconciliation. After all, as they put it, Pakistan has “historically pursued the policy of promoting brotherhood." This article evaluates Pakistan’s latest diplomatic manoeuvre.


Saudi-Pak Dynamics

Islamabad and Riyadh have had very close ties from the last few decades and Pakistan is a strategic partner of Saudi Arabia with nearly 1,200 Pakistani troops currently stationed in the country.[i] The Pakistani military’s interests in the Iran-Saudi stand-off are fairly skewed toward Saudi Arabia, which has historically been an important source of funds. Yet Pakistan had refused to commit its troops in support of the Saudi intervention in Yemen. The issue was settled after visits by the Pakistani Prime minister and the Army chief to Riyadh.


This year too there has been a flurry of visits after Pakistan initially distanced itself from the anti-Islamic State coalition announced by Saudi Arabia, which had named Pakistan as a member. Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir arrived in Pakistan on 07 January, where he met leaders of the Pakistani government. Later Sartaz Aziz told the parliament that “Pakistan has called for resolution of differences through peaceful means in the larger interest of Muslim unity in these challenging times."


On 10 January the Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman met the Pakistani Army Chief in Rawalpindi, where Gen Sharif assured the Minister that any threat to Saudi Arabia's territorial integrity would evoke a strong response from Islamabad.[ii] Sharif was echoing the remarks he had made in Oct 2015 while addressing the concluding ceremony of Pak-Saudi Joint Training Exercise Al-Shibab at the National Counter Terrorism Centre, Pabbi, near Jhelum. The exercise had focused on counter-terrorism training of Pakistani and Saudi special operation forces. [iii]


However, it is quite clear that Saudi interest in Pakistan extends beyond platitudes and promises, to the country’s ballistic missile capability and nuclear arsenal.


Iranian Knot

Relations with Iran with whom Pakistan shares a border have been less than cordial at times, particularly in the context of Baluchistan. Pakistan has made concerted efforts of late to ensure the security of Shias in the country. Islamabad has proposed a free trade agreement with Tehran and Pakistan’s business community is particularly hopeful of increasing trade with Iran after the lifting of sanctions. The dismantling of the US-EU energy sanctions regime enhances the prospects of the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline.


There is also the talk of integrating Iran into the China-Pakistan economic corridor (CPEC). Some in the Pakistani security establishment are of the view that Islamabad’s decision to not take part in the Saudi-led Yemen war last April seems to have earned trust with Tehran without irreparably damaging relations with Riyadh.


Pakistan is aware that Iranian inclusion in CPEC (it recently declared Gwadar and Chahbhar as sister cities) would be a crippling blow to India’s plan to access markets in Central Asia and Europe through Iran.


Peace Doves

On 18 January, Gen Sharif along with the Pakistan PM left for Saudi Arabia and Iran in a bid to defuse tensions between the two countries. The Pakistani narrative has been that it has a large Shi'ite minority, hence wants to avoid taking sides to stem sectarian violence at home and boost economic ties with both Saudi Arabia and Iran.


General Sharif met Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince and defence minister, upon arrival in Riyadh and stressed the need for opening up the communication channel between Saudi Arabia and Iran as “due to the situation in Middle East, the Muslim Ummah is weakening.”[iv]


Pakistan will appoint a focal person for the resolution of the issue and will ask the two countries to also designate focal persons for the same stated Nawaz Sharif while talking to media after the meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rowhani.[v] He also reportedly offered to host talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Nuclear and Missile Technology

A related issue is Pakistan’s nuclear and ballistic missile programme. Pakistan's expansion of its nuclear arsenal (supposedly) aimed at India amidst continued instability in the country has raised fears of a radical takeover or diversion of nuclear material and technology. According to a new US Congressional Research Service report Islamabad is also producing fissile material, adding to related production facilities, deploying additional nuclear weapons, and new types of delivery vehicles.


For the Iran nuclear deal to come unstuck, proliferation of nuclear and ballistic missile technology to the Middle East, could be a trigger. The US, therefore, wants to provide Pakistan a modified civil nuclear deal and bring its nuclear programme under international safeguards. Pakistani desire to allay international concern about its nukes also prompts its seemingly “responsible” behaviour.[vi]



While GEO News in Pakistan reported that Islamabad had been requested by Saudi Arabia to play the role of interlocutor with Iran, it is largely believed the initiative was unilateral and well thought-out. [vii]


Besides the fact that the peacemaking role is good for Pakistan’s image “makeover” and a prudent move with regards to the sectarian dimensions of its internal security, there are other factors driving Islamabad’s diplomatic initiative.


First is Afghanistan, which has in the past seen Saudi-Iran rivalry play out. Any proxy battle at this stage would seriously complicate the situation to the detriment of Pakistani interests in Afghanistan. Second is securing Chinese interests, both commercial and security. It is imperative for Pakistan that Chinese security in Xinjiang and commercial interests in Pakistan are not threatened by any developments in AfPak. Third, an Iran-Saudi Arabia proxy fight in AfPak would jeopardize Pakistan’s efforts to consolidate counterinsurgency and counterterrorism gains made nationwide over the past two years. Fourthly, the issue is also complicated by India’s cordial relations with both Iran and Saudi Arabia. Riyadh even advised the Sharif(s) to join hands with India to eliminate the menace of terrorism from the whole region.[viii] Lastly, Pakistan has always nursed ambitions of a leadership role in the Islamic world and sees its peacemaking role serving as a means to that end. It also needs their support to balance any pressure the US and the West might bring on to it.



So concerned is Pakistan about the unintended consequences of the Saudi-Iran faceoff that it has reportedly issued guidelines to the media on how to report the issue.[ix] Sadly what is missing in Pakistan’s diplomatic manoeuvring is the realisation that it is its own policies that may prove to be its undoing.



Views expressed by the Author are personal.


[i] Muhammad Anis. ‘1,180 Pakistan Army personnel present in Saudi Arabia: Kh Asif,’ The News, January 20, 2016. http://www.thenews.com.pk/print/92465-1180-Pakistan-Army-personnel-presentin-Saudi-Arabia-Kh-Asif

[ii] Asif Shahzad. ‘Pakistani army chief says Islamabad will respond to any territorial threat to Saudi Arabia,’ US News, January 10, 2016. http://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2016-01-10/pakistan-to-respond-to-saudis-territorial-integrity-threat

[iii]‘ Pakistan will respond if sovereignty of Saudi Arabia threatened: General Raheel Sharif,’ DNA, October 31, 2015. http://www.dnaindia.com/world/report-pakistan-will-respond-if-sovereignty-of-saudi-arabia-threatened-general-raheel-sharif-2140487

[iv]Kamran Yousaf. ‘Saudi-Iran rift weakening Muslim ummah: Army chief,’ The Express Tribune, January 18, 2016. http://tribune.com.pk/story/1029699/pm-departs-for-saudi-arabia-in-bid-to-mend-rift/

[vi] Monish Gulati. ‘After Iran n-deal, will global attention turn to Pakistan?’ South Asia Monitor, April 21, 2015.


[vii]  Arif Rafiq. ‘Can Pakistan Broker a Iran-Saudi Détente?’ The National Interest, January 21, 2016. http://nationalinterest.org/feature/can-pakistan-broker-iran-saudi-d%C3%A9tente-14972?platform=hootsuite

[viii] Ali Zain. ‘COAS Raheel Sharif meets Saudi King Salman, Crown Prince,’ Daily Pakistan, November 4, 2015. http://en.dailypakistan.com.pk/headline/gen-raheel-sharif-meets-saudi-king-salman-crown-prince/

[ix] Irfan Haider. ‘Pemra advises TV channels to display 'caution' on Saudi-Iran conflict,’ Dawn, January 06, 2016.


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Monish Gulati

Contact at: [email protected]
Monish Gulati is an independent defence analyst based in New Delhi.
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