Has Pakistan seized diplomatic initiative from India in Saudi-Iran row?


Abhishek G Bhaya

With the already hostile relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran plunging to a new low lately, Pakistan has taken a lead on India in initiating efforts to ease tensions between the two Gulf rivals.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was in Saudi capital Riyadh on Monday where he expressed his “deep concern” to Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz over escalating tensions between the Sunni kingdom and predominantly Shiite Iran.

He will head today (Tuesday) for Tehran where he is expected to meet Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. “The purpose of the visits is to mediate and to end the standoff between the two countries,” a Pakistani government official said.

“The Prime Minister expressed our deep concern on the recent escalation of tensions [between Riyadh and Tehran],” Islamabad’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Qazi Khalilullah said. “He also called for an early resolution of differences through peaceful means, in the larger interest of Ummah (the Islamic nation), particularly during these challenging times.”

Prime Minister Sharif’s delegation includes Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif, arguably the most powerful man in the nuclear-armed country. “General Sharif [during the meeting with King Salman] stressed the need for opening up communication channels between Saudi and Iranian leadership,” said a Pakistani official.

A rare show of solidarity between Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership emphasizes Islamabad’s seriousness on resolving the dispute, which may have global ramifications. The diplomatic enterprise also provides Islamabad, which has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons related to extremism and terrorism, to improve its international standing and establish itself as an influential regional player.

Pakistan is indeed in a unique position to mediate between the two countries. “We have a border with Iran, and a 30 percent population of Shiites,” a senior military official aboard the plane carrying both the Sharifs to Riyadh was quoted as saying by NBC News. “We also have the largest army in the region that is closely connected with Saudi. And, yes, we have nukes, so we can’t just stand around as tensions mount,” the official said.

Spectre of a Saudi-Iran war

The current crisis between Riyadh and Iran sparked off on January 2, when Saudi Arabia executed Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al Nimr. He was among 47 people put to death in a single day for “terrorism”. Most of those executed were Sunnis.

Sheikh Nimr’s death triggered outrage in Shiite-majority Iran, and the protests led to the burning of Saudi diplomatic missions in that country, including the embassy in Tehran – an act Riyadh blamed on Tehran. Saudi Arabia – and a number of its Arab allies – reacted by cutting diplomatic ties with Iran.

The severing of diplomatic ties has sent shockwaves around the world, raising the spectre of a full-blown war between the regional rivals with a potential to polarize Shiite-Sunni sectarian divide within the Muslim world.

As it is, Riyadh and Tehran are already involved in two not-so-proxy wars in the Middle East. In Yemen, a Saudi-led alliance is engaged for over a year now in a seemingly stalemated war against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. And in Syria, while Iran is backing President Bashar Assad, Saudi is supporting the armed alliance of opposition groups, which include militant extremist factions such as Ahrar al Sham and Jaish al Islam.

Also, with Tehran and Riyadh daggers drawn, the implementation of Iran’s nuclear deal leading to the end of international sanctions regime along with the thaw in US-Iran ties have only fed paranoia in the Gulf kingdom.

Missed opportunity for India?

Pakistan’s diplomatic move stands in contrast with the cautious ‘wait-and-watch’ policy of India vis-à-vis the standoff in the Middle East, which New Delhi regards as its extended neighbourhood.

Observers feel India, more than Pakistan, has a greater leverage with both Iran and Saudi Arabia. And therefore, New Delhi, should have taken a more pro-active approach as an interlocutor between the Middle Eastern rivals, even before the current crisis broke out.

“India has very strong strategic interests in its partnership with Iran. It maintains equally strong ties with Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states. It enjoys goodwill on both sides of the Gulf. I am a very strong advocate of India playing a key role in promoting engagement between Saudi Arabia and Iran,” veteran Indian diplomat Talmiz Ahmad told this writer when he was in Muscat last May.

Echoing Ahmad’s view, Olivier da Lage, the editor in chief at Radio France International, in his 14 January article for Mumbai-based thinktank Gateway House, said: “In its policy towards Middle East, India prides itself on having good relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, and some observers have suggested this puts New Delhi in a good position to help iron out the differences between the two countries. India needs to maintain good relations with both countries and cannot afford to alienate either one.”

Ahmad, who has served as New Delhi’s ambassador in three Gulf countries, including twice in Saudi Arabia (2000-03; 2010-11), suggested India could lead from the front in bringing about a long term diplomatic solution in the decades-old tiff between Riyadh and Tehran.

“There is a trust deficit between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Each side, if you speak to them separately, suggests that the other side, while it makes all the right remarks, doesn’t follow it up with right actions. This is where I think countries like India, working together diplomatically, can promote a basis for understanding and dialogue,” he said.

India could have easily done what Pakistan seems to be doing. It could have talked with both Iranian and Saudi leaderships separately and helped them with back-channel negotiations. Once the dust had settled and rhetoric died down, New Delhi could have offered to host direct talks between Tehran and Riyadh.

In one aspect where New Delhi scores ahead of Islamabad is that it will be easily agreeable as a neutral party in the dispute by both the sides, whereas Pakistan has a well-known tilt towards Saudi Arabia. As recently as on January 10, General Raheel Sharif, during his meeting with Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Rawalpindi, declared that “any threat to Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity would evoke a strong response from Pakistan.”

So, has India lost out on an opportunity that befits its role as an emerging global power? “It would be wrong to conclude that India should adopt a ‘wait and see’ attitude. New Delhi must, on the contrary, engage deeper with both Riyadh and Tehran on the basis of its own national interest,” said da Lage.

Asian embrace

Ahmad proposed a completely radical approach to diplomacy in what he called the ‘Asian embrace’ as an alternative to ‘Western intervention’ model in dealing with, not only the current crisis, but also other regional disputes. In the long run, India must form an alliance with other Asian countries such as China, Japan, South Korea and even Indonesia and Malaysia in an effort to resolve international disputes.

Unlike the aggressive diplomacy pushed by the US-led West (in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria), “the Asian embrace will neither be a hegemonic intervention nor will it be an intrusion. It will be an initiative of the countries that have very strong ties with all nations of the Gulf, and have a direct abiding interest in the security of the region from the point of view of energy security, economic cooperation etc. None of us in Asia can be comfortable if the Gulf is insecure,” he elaborated.

“I do not wish to underplay the challenges that we will face pursuing this initiative. Firstly we need to have the habit of cooperation and dialogue between Asian countries themselves. And then to shape an intervention which would be acceptable to the region. This is something which needs certain efforts. This needs a governmental approval and sanction,” said Ahmad.

“Maybe at the first instance, it would have to be shaped at the academic level, at Track-2 level because it is so novel. And you would have to be patient,” concluded the veteran diplomat.

China, like India, is cautious too and has already urged “calm and restraint” between Saudi Arabia and Iran. However, Beijing appears to be keen on taking a bigger role with Chinese President Xi Jinping embarking today (Tuesday) on a 5-day visit to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran.

“Clearly now there are tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, so he will be going there in the role of persuader,” said Zhu Feng, professor at Peking University’s School of International Studies. “China will try and do what it can, but it still won’t play a main role.”

With Pakistan and China throwing their weight in the Saudi-Iran row, can India afford to keep a safe distance? Or is it time for New Delhi to play its rightful role of a constructive partner in maintaining regional peace?

(The author is a Gulf-based Indian journalist)