As images of scattered dead bodies, of destroyed cars and damaged buildings flash on Pakistani television screens with the rising death toll of innocent civilians and of men dying in the line of duty, Pakistan’s entry as a potential mediator on the fractured and potentially explosive Middle East scene seems to be a logical step.
Pakistan is not only the first Muslim country to actively engage with the two adversaries, the Saudis and the Iranians, but indeed the first country whose national leadership has sought to get personally engaged as a mediator. Last week the Chinese leadership sent a senior official to the two capitals on a reconnaissance mission before the Chinese president’s own trip later this week.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s decision to take the army chief along with him signalled Pakistan’s willingness to start talking serious business even in the first round of visits – in case there is willingness in the two capitals. Serious business between Iran and Saudi Arabia, apart from the immediate diplomatic crisis following the execution of Shia scholar Sheikh Nimr al Nimr, involves security matters extending from Syria to Iraq. Pakistan’s military has been Saudi Arabia’s key security partner, and hence a key interlocutor in the Saudi-Pakistan bilateral relationship. In Iran too the Pakistan military, especially of late, has been viewed as a credible security partner.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s decision to travel to Riyadh and Tehran to convince the Saudi and the Iranian leadership to opt for dialogue harkens back to Pakistan’s decades-old and repeated practice of leading diplomatic initiatives for and within the Muslim world. Beginning with Quaid-e-Azam’s strong diplomatic reprimand in his early 1948 letter to President Truman regarding US’ policy of depriving Palestinians of their homeland as a crime “that history will never forgive” to the active role that General Ziaul Haq played in the early 1980s in trying to end the Iran-Iraq war, Pakistan has often retained the diplomatic initiative in crises affecting the Muslim world.
While our diplomatic moves involving the Muslim world have mostly been high profile, these moves have been of varied significance. For example, diplomatic and political support to national liberation movements in Muslim countries from Morocco to Tunisia, and the post-1979 support to Iran including supervising its diplomatic and commercial interests had a greater impact on Pakistan’s stature within the Muslim world compared to Pakistan’s moderation during the prolonged Iran-Iraq war.
Battles like the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq war often leave minimal space for diplomacy. But equally the leverage Pakistan, as a potential facilitator, enjoyed over the two countries also influenced our capacity as a facilitator. The Pakistan of the 1980s – like the Pakistan of the 1950s, had become involved in the battles of other countries. In the 1950s it was the US and Britain and in the 1980s it was again the US extending to the post-9/11 period.
Throughout these periods the calculation of our policymakers, khaki and mufti both, was that by fighting others’ battles or by positioning as others’ ally Pakistan was in fact enhancing its own security. Weapons and dollars were reaped from such a policy. And in the case of coup-makers, alliance with the US contributed to their regime survival.
This latest move by the Nawaz Sharif government is, for several reasons, a high-profile diplomacy move to end the Riyadh-Tehran stand-off, and stands apart from similar moves made in the past. Five are noteworthy.
One, within the Muslim world and specifically within the expanding South-Western Asian area, with close geographical proximity to us, Pakistan has continued to position itself as a non-partisan country. Unlike many other major Muslim countries including Turkey, which have become partisan in this long-brewing Saudi-Iran conflict, Pakistan has remained neutral. Although it has close ties with both the countries, and in fact close security ties with Saudi Arabia, Islamabad has publicly announced its neutrality.
Two, Pakistan is the only Muslim state that has opted to remain non-sectarian. The impact undoubtedly of its blunders of the 1980s, following its co-authoring the international Afghan ‘jihad’, was the proliferation of vigilante sectarian groups. Equally the erosion of the writ of the state as space for vigilante groups increased also led to Pakistan becoming the battle-ground, at varying degrees, of the Saudi-Irani proxy war. Nevertheless the state attempted to remain a Muslim state, never diluting its identity for a sectarian state. Pakistan, with its credentials as a Muslim state and now engaged in cleaning up the fall-out of allowing militant forces to undermine the write of the state, can credibly and actively advocate the need for Muslim states to stay non-sectarian.
Three, most importantly internally too the government is walking the talk. After suffering almost fatally from its decades-old policy of using religion and proxies to promote its security interests, Pakistan’s policymakers know that the only path to our survival is upholding rule of law. The policy of mentoring sectarian groups and opting for benign neglect as these groups tore apart tolerance and pluralism that existed pre-1980s is on its way out.
Four, having to counter terrorism across the entire country and at multiple levels, through force, through legislation, political will and through administrative moves, Pakistan has the experience and the capacity to lead a credible counterterror effort across the Muslim world. This indeed pre-supposes a common definition of terrorism across the Muslim world. This requires bringing the Saudi-Iranian governments to draw up a common charter of rules of competition within these two countries.
With their political and security competitiveness extending across the Middle East and beyond, and also framed within largely sectarian ideology, this may seem a tall order. Yet with the expanding threat of Daesh, Al-Qaeda and other militant groups across the Muslim world, mediating for a lasting peace between the two zones of the Muslim world is possible.
Five, after the initial intense and aggressive Iranian and Saudi reactions, there appears to be a cooling down of political temperatures. The Saudi defence minister has completely ruled out war while the Iranian foreign minister has indicated willingness to engage with Riyadh. Tehran has already taken action against those who attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran. This suggests increasing space for diplomacy. And perhaps Pakistan’s initiative will help with the needed breakthrough. For a broader and lasting engagement Pakistan and China, which also has interest and engagement with Iran and Saudi Arabia, can become partners for brokering peace between them.
But will diplomatic engagement between the two antagonistic Muslim states be sufficient? Will that spell success for Pakistan? No. Having taken the bold and wise step of calling for unity among the two principle embattled states that lead two camps within the Muslim world with underpinnings of proxies, Pakistan needs to return to the visionary leadership of the Quaid. The Quaid’s vision of tolerant and democratic politics which compelled him, through his uniquely competent foreign minister, to position Pakistan as a facilitator of peace and liberty within the Muslim world and beyond, must now be our guiding vision.
Given the current chaos flowing from deadly fault-lines within the Muslim world, the Quaid’s seven decades-old policy remains relevant even today. Pakistan needs to return to its own region and to its own founding DNA, away from the old and now increasingly abandoned proxies and satellites mode from which the Pakistani state, society and politics reaped many vicious harvests.
The writer is a national security strategist, visiting faculty at
NUST and fellow at
Harvard University’s Asia Centre.