Asia

Pakistan on collision course with Iran?

Pakistan has approved the appointment of its former army chief, Raheel Sharif, as the head of a Saudi-led military alliance. Experts say the regional and domestic repercussions of this move could be disastrous.

Pakistan General Raheel Sharif (Getty Images/AFP/S. Kodikara)

Pakistan has generally tried to maintain close ties with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, but this is now going to change completely.

Despite the parliament's decision last year against becoming a party to the intensifying Saudi-Iranian conflict in the Middle East, particularly in Yemen, Islamabad recently approved the appointment of Raheel Sharif (main picture), the country's former army chief, as head of the 39-member Saudi-led military coalition. Riyadh says the Muslim nations' alliance was formed to fight terrorism in the region, but experts point out that it is primarily an anti-Iran grouping. Naturally, Tehran is not part of the coalition.

The Associated Press news agency cited Pakistan's government officials as confirming that Raheel Sharif had departed to Riyadh on Friday to take the reins of the military alliance after Islamabad officially endorsed his leadership. The authorities, however, claim the coalition under Sharif's command won't take any action against Muslim countries.

Pakistan Rawalpindi Adel al-Dschubeir bei Raheel Sharif (picture-alliance/AA/ISPR)

Pakistan's military and civilian leadership expressed solidarity with Saudi Arabia in the wake of Riyadh's Yemen attacks

Sattar Khan, DW's correspondent, reports from Islamabad that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's government has begun a diplomatic initiative to allay Tehran's concerns following Raheel Sharif's controversial appointment. But the efforts are unlikely to yield results, says Khan.

"Saudi Arabia and Iran do not trust each other. Also, Riyadh does not want Islamabad to be neutral in the conflict; it wants its full support. In this scenario, how can Pakistan's diplomatic drive be successful?" Aman Memon, a former professor at the Allama Iqbal Open University in Islamabad, told DW.

Dependence on Saudi Arabia

In 2015, Riyadh formally requested Pakistan to provide combat planes, warships and soldiers to support the Arab coalition in fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. But the South Asian country's lawmakers voted to remain neutral in the conflict, albeit PM Sharif later clarified in a televised speech that in case of an aggression against Saudi Arabia, Pakistan would take Riyadh's side.

Saudi Arabia, which is one of Pakistan's biggest financers, was unhappy with Islamabad's reluctance to join the coalition against Yemen's Shiite rebels. The Arab kingdom has been involved in a two-year-long campaign of airstrikes against Houthi rebels, who have taken over swathes of territory in Saudi Arabia's southern neighborhood, raising concerns in Riyadh about a potential Shiite uprising in the kingdom. Saudi Arabia also fears that Iran is working to increase its influence in the region.

Kämpfe im Jemen (Reuters/Anees Mahyoub)

What is Pakistan's interest in Yemen?

Experts say that Pakistan's economic dependence on the Arabian country  is also a reason behind Pakistan's support for Riyadh and Raheel Sharif's appointment. They claim that that Pakistan already has troops in Saudi Arabia in an assisting role. But with Sharif taking charge of the alliance, the troops could be directly involved in the battle.

The Arab countries' coalition also has the backing of the United States. In the past few years, Islamabad has drifted away considerably from Washington but analysts say that both countries still have many common strategic interests in the region. Also, the Pakistani military heavily depends on the US funding.

"Recently, a US official visited Saudi Arabia and expressed his country's support to the Saudi alliance. He also lampooned Iran. So the objectives of this grouping are pretty clear," Sabir Karbalai, an Islamabad-based analyst, told DW.

The expert, however, added that Islamabad should have remained neutral in the Saudi-Iranian power struggle.

Deteriorating ties

Islamabad's over-enthusiasm to appease Riyadh could further exacerbate its relations with Tehran. The ties between the two neighbors have been tense for many years. The two countries have border conflicts, and Tehran is also not very pleased with Islamabad's alleged support to various Sunni militant groups, which have been involved in launching attacks in Iran's eastern areas, and massacring Shiite citizens inside Pakistan.

Iran Pakistan Hassan Rouhani zu Besuch in Islamabad (picture-alliance/AP Photo)

Can Iran's Rouhani win over Pakistan?

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visited Pakistan in March last year in an attempt to convince Pakistani authorities to remain neutral in the Middle Eastern conflicts. Iran is aware of the concerns and limitations of its ties with Pakistan, but analysts say it still wants to maintain "normal" relations with Islamabad.

"Pakistan remains solidly allied with Saudi Arabia, regardless of how intense the outreach may be from Tehran. There are decades of close military cooperation that are not about to be undone," Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, told DW.

Farhan Hanif Siddiqui, an International Relations expert at the Quaid-i-Azam University, believes that Pakistan needs to assure Iran that the Saudi alliance is not against any country.

"It is vital for Pakistan to convince Iran that the Saudi-led alliance is only against al Qaeda and the so-called 'Islamic State.' If Tehran continues to believe that the Saudi coalition is targeting the regimes in Iraq and Syria, Pakistan's diplomatic efforts will be in vain," Siddiqui told DW.

Sectarian strife

The South Asian country's intelligentsia and civil society have voiced their displeasure and concern over Raheel Sharif's role in the Saudi alliance and Islamabad's direct involvement in the conflict.

"Pakistan should not get involved in the Saudi Arabia-Iran regional rivalry," Mosharraf Zaidi, a former USAID consultant and Islamabad-based foreign policy expert, told DW. "We must not forget that Riyadh and Tehran have their own interests, therefore the Pakistani government, too, should do what is best for the country. It must keep good relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, " he added.

Demonstration der Unterstützer der Jama'at ud-Da'wah gegen Houthi Rebellen Sanaa Jemen (Reuters/Fayaz Aziz)

Pakistan's Sunni religious parties strongly support Saudi Arabia's Yemen campaign

Pakistan's support to Saudi Arabia will also increase the Sunni-Shiite tension in the South Asian country. Analysts believe that the Sunni militant groups will feel further emboldened by the fact that the ex-army chief now heads the Saudi-led alliance.

The sectarian strife in Pakistan has been ongoing for some time now, with militant Islamist groups unleashing terror on the minority Shiite groups in many parts of the country. Most of these outfits, including the Taliban, take inspiration from the hard-line Saudi-Wahabi Islamic ideology.

"For Pakistan's Islamic fundamentalists, the country is already a 'Sunni Wall' against Shiite Iran," Siegfried O. Wolf, an expert at the University of Heidelberg's South Asia Institute, told DW in an interview.

"The policy of containing the Shiite influence in the region was seriously affected after the collapse of the Sunni Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001 and the subsequent overthrow of Saddam Hussein's government in Iraq. These events created a power vacuum which is now being increasingly filled by Tehran. Saudi Arabia does not want to see the rise of Iran and will continue to do anything to ensure Sunni dominance," he underlined.

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