Friends and Foes

King Salman bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia with Prime Minister Imran Khan on Tuesday

By Syeda Mamoona Rubab

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s week, which started with an initiative for easing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, is looking to end on a rather positive note as he has apparently gotten the consent of both parties to engage in a peace process facilitated by Pakistan.

PM Khan first travelled to Iran on Sunday and later visited Riyadh on Tuesday night with his offer of facilitating dialogue between the two countries that have a long history of disputes between them.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have been vying for influence in the region for decades. The rivalry was pronounced four decades ago in the aftermath of Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 and it seems to have escalated sharply after the dramatic changes in Saudi leadership following King Salman bin Abdul Aziz’s succession to throne in 2015.

Khan, who shared his mediation plan with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on the margins of United Nations General Assembly session in September, got support from Tehran even before he embarked on the trip. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, in an interview with TRT, said that his country was open to talks with Saudi Arabia, both directly or via intermediaries. The same position was reiterated by President Rouhani, while talking to the media along with PM Khan in Tehran. He then said: “Regional issues have to be resolved through regional means and dialogue. We also emphasized that any goodwill gesture will be responded with a goodwill gesture and good words.”

Unlike Iranians, who have been receptive to Pakistani mediation offers in the past, Saudis have never encouraged such initiatives. In 2016, Saudi Foreign Affairs Minister Adel al Jubeir curtly rejected any mediation by Pakistan in a row with Iran

Saudi Arabia was, however, a different case. Unlike Iranians, who have been receptive to Pakistani mediation offers in the past, Saudis have never encouraged such initiatives. In 2016, Saudi Foreign Affairs Minister Adel al Jubeir curtly rejected any mediation by Pakistan in the row with Iran, days after the then prime minister and army chief travelled to both countries urging them to deescalate tensions.

The initiative this time is being taken in a context. At the core of the dispute is the Yemen conflict. Operation Decisive Storm was launched in March 2015 for deterring the threat posed by Houthis and Iran’s growing influence. Four and a half years on, the operation that was said to be limited one, is continuing. It has not only resulted in a humanitarian crisis in Yemen where 56,000 have been killed and 14 million are starving, but has also caused massive economic losses to Saudi Arabia. The recent most attack on petroleum giant Aramco’s facilities exposed the vulnerability of Saudi oil assets and hence the Achilles heel of the Saudi economy.

Many believe that the initiative being run by Khan was originally proposed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, when the former visited Saudi Arabia before the UNGA session. Pakistan’s government, ostensibly under pressure from Riyadh, had later denied that Saudi Arabia asked Pakistan to play any mediatory role with Iran or that Khan was given some message for the Iranian leaders. Foreign Office insists that the initiative is purely prime minister’s own.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (right) with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan in Tehran

Irrespective of whether or not the Saudis asked Khan to undertake the mediation mission, there is ample evidence to suggest that Saudis – after feeling the heat of the lingering Yemen dispute – expressed their interest in a process that could defuse tensions in the region.

There is no clear indication from Riyadh as to how they are seeing this process. Even the reports carried by Kingdom’s official newswire Saudi Press Agency (SPA) on PM Khan’s meetings with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman cursorily mentioned that “regional developments” were discussed. The report on the meeting with the King further mentioned that the efforts being made to address the regional issues also came under discussion.

A statement issued by Pakistani Prime Minister’s Office gave slightly more insight. It hinted that Saudis were amenable to PM Khan’s initiative. It said that the discussions were “comprehensive and constructive” and that the Saudi leadership “agreed to remain engaged and consult closely to take the process forward.”

The statement said that the Saudis not only appreciated PM Khan’s efforts, but also acknowledged its impact on de-escalation in the region.

PM Khan, in his conversations in Riyadh, emphasized on avoiding military conflict and called on both sides to engage constructively over their disputes. He also offered his good offices for reducing tensions and holding dialogue over contentious issues.

Winning the support of both parties for the peace project is just the first step. Navigating the challenges in process, especially distrust between the two sides, would be a much bigger and a difficult task.

Although, the Saudi litany of complaints against Iran is fairly long comprising allegation like ‘pursuing a hostile approach toward Arab countries, meddling in the internal affairs of neighbors, promoting sectarian strife and backing destabilizing actions’, the issue requiring immediate attention is Yemen. A way out of this Saudi–Iranian standoff, therefore, lies through a settlement of the Yemen conflict.

Iran is still holding on to its four-point plan for Yemen conflict, which was originally proposed in 2015 and includes immediate ceasefire, humanitarian assistance, a broad national dialogue in Yemen, and the establishment of an inclusive national unity government.

The Saudis, meanwhile, want restoration of Mansour Hadi’s government and Houthis to leave Sanaa.

Reaching a common ground would not be easy.

It will also be important to watch the US role. Saudi urge for mediation, after Aramco attack, was because of a cold US response to Riyadh’s expectations of retribution. However, the situation has slightly changed with US deploying around 2,800 additional troops to the Kingdom. It remains to be seen if US deployment lowers Saudi desire for a diplomatic and political settlement with Iran.

The writer is a senior researcher at Islamabad Policy Institute. She can be reached at mamoona.rubab@ipipk.org

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