Home Pakistan in the Iran Saudi Standoff : A Sectarian Turn

Pakistan in the Iran Saudi Standoff : A Sectarian Turn

The ongoing crisis in the Middle East became more complex with the beginning of Saudi-Iran tensions following Iran’s alleged support to Syria’s Bashar al Assad regime, Saudi airstrikes on Houthi rebels in Yemen and intensified after negotiation of Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, in which the  P5+1 powers reached at an amicable solution with the Iranian leadership. Tensions emerged when the deal allowed Iran to curb its nuclear program and not eliminating it, thus giving rise to Saudi suspicions. The conflict, since then has taken an ugly turn with successive dampeners (one after another) defining the Saudi-Iran relationship.

The death of hundreds of Iranian Hajj pilgrims in a stampede at Mecca and the execution of a Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr-al-Nimr by Saudi authorities added to the tensions. The reaction came in the form of an arson attack on Saudi embassy in Tehran, following which Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies cut diplomatic ties with Iran.

The effects of these tensions are being felt across the world, specifically South Asia which houses approximately 30% of the world’s total Muslim population.  The repercussions are being felt in the form of a Shia-Sunni sectarian divide as Saudi Arabia is a Sunni majority state and Iran, a Shite power, which has instilled a confidence amongst the Shias worldwide after having successfully withstood global hostilities over its nuclear programme.

SECTARIANISM IN PAKISTAN: A THEATRE OF SAUDI-IRAN RIVALRY

One such state affected by sectarian tensions is Pakistan, which has a 20% Shia population, making it a significant minority. Analyzing Pakistani politics without mentioning  Shia-Sunni relations is incomplete. Added to this, Pakistan’s dealings with Iran and Saudi Arabia also come into light.

The nation was born after undivided India was partitioned following the demand of Indian subcontinent’s Muslims for a separate homeland. Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the west-leaning charismatic leader who led the Pakistan movement did not live long enough to setup an ideological base for the newly born nation. Following his death, the military took control  and started running the administration hand in glove with the Sunni Islamist organizations, which repeatedly called for running Pakistan on the lines of puritan Islam. The cause of Islam and alliance with the USA during the cold war made Saudi Arabia and Pakistan natural allies.

Sectarian divide deepened in Pakistan after General Zia-ul-Haq staged a coup in 1977 and became the President of Pakistan. His tenure was notorious for his policy of ‘Islamization’, which promoted the radical Islamic doctrine of Wahabbism, thereby fostering discontent among the Shia. Pakistan received huge funding from Saudi Arabia to setup thousands of Islamic seminaries to institutionalize the Islamic ideology. This phase coincided with the 1979 Khomeini revolution in Iran, beginning the exportation of Shiite influence.

Recognizing the new Iranian leadership, Zia famously declared that, "Khomeini is a symbol of Islamic insurgence". On one hand, Pakistan enjoyed close diplomatic ties with Iran and even went as far as secretly supplying nuclear technology to Iran’s covert nuclear facilities in the 1980s. On the other hand, the Shia-Sunni divide intensified when a Shiite outfit named ‘Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Fiqh-e-Jafaria’ was established (under the leadership of Arif Hussaini, a student of Ayatollah Khomenei) in 1979 as a response against Zia-ul-Haq’s policy of Islamization. The timing of its establishment and its influence in the decade of 1980s is attributed to Iranian support. This was followed by the establishment of the Sunni fundamentalist organization ‘Sipah-e-Sahaba’ in 1986 and other organizations including Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (1996), all of them being allegedly funded by Wahabi networks operating in Saudi Arabia. Sectarian killings have been rampant in the Gilgit-Baltistain (a predominantly Shia region in northern Pakistan), Karachi (Sindh Province), Quetta (Balochistan Province) and the North-West Frontier Province. The Pakistani establishment has attempted to curb these activities by repeatedly banning many of these organizations but their deep ideological inroads amongst their followers made the task easier said than done. The hostilities had risen to such level that besides attacking the Shia population, ‘Lashkar-e-Jhangvi’ also started targeting Pakistani politicians. The most prominent example is the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007 in a public rally. The Pakistani Interior Ministry stated that it had proof that Al-Qaeda was behind the assassination, stating that the suicide bomber belonged to ‘Lashkar-e-Jhangvi’. The organization also confirmed the recent killing of the Home Minister of Punjab Province.

PRESENT SITUATION: BALANCING THE DOMESTIC AS WELL THE INTERNATIONAL

In January 2015, the Houthi (a Shiite sect in Yemen) rebellion reached a crescendo when the forces raided presidential palace, thereby ousting the Yemeni President, a Saudi ally. This prompted Air strikes by the Saudi establishment and its allies on the Houthi strongholds inside the Yemeni territory. Saudi Arabia has accused Iran of covertly supporting the Houthi rebellion.  Tensions emerged in Pakistan when the Saudi establishment asked the Pakistani government to provide armed assistance for its operations against the Houthi rebels. Though Pakistan refused eventually, the hype generated about a possible Pakistani support had already split the nation again on sectarian lines with the Shiite community leaders lodging their protests against such action.  The New Year was welcomed by a fresh resurgence in tensions in the nation following the execution of Sheikh Nimr-al-Nimr. Various cities and towns in Pakistan witnessed a public outpour of anger against Saudi Arabia. The Media regulatory authority of Pakistan also issued an advisory cautioning the news channels to refrain from debating on issues related to sectarian politics. It is at this juncture the Pakistani establishment decided to act, to balance its foreign policy as well maintaining internal stability.

Saudi Arabia has come to rescue Pakistan during the worst of its times, especially providing aid in the times of natural disasters and even providing assistance to rectify Pakistan’s Balance of Payments crisis. Moreover, Saudi Arabia also houses close to 2 million Pakistani expatriate workers, thereby becoming a huge source of remittances. Both nations share strong military ties, described as the closest which Pakistan has with any other fellow Islamic nation. Saudi Arabia is one of the few countries where Pakistani military missions are deployed. Simultaneously, Pakistan cannot afford to deteriorate ties with neighbouring Iran, with which the ambitious Iran-Pakistan pipeline project is all set to be rolled out, which will go a long way to meet Pakistan’s energy requirements.

The New Year began with the Pakistani establishment prioritizing the Saudi-Iran issue. Both, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and General Raheel Sharif travelled together to Saudi Arabia and Iran, which is an attempt by Pakistan to find a ray of hope for peace between the two powers, whose rivalry has transcended borders and specifically hit Pakistan hard, internally as well as externally. The previous years of instabilities faced by Pakistan are a visible proof of how Pakistan became a theatre of Saudi-Iran conflict. This time, a visibly neutral government offering to play as a mediator does offer a sense of commitment on part of Pakistan as it cannot afford to be destabilized with sectarian violence, especially at a time when the $46 billion worth China Pakistan Economic Corridor project is set to take off. Only time will tell how effective the Pakistani leadership has been in mediating a crisis which has put at stake its domestic as well as foreign policy stability.


Views expressed by the Author are personal. The Author is pursuing his Masters in International Relation from the South Asian University. 

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Prateek Joshi

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