Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Monday expressed “deep concern” to Saudi King Salman over escalating tensions between the Sunni kingdom and predominantly Shiite Iran.
Sharif visited Riyadh in an effort to ease those tensions and is to head on Tuesday to Saudi’s rival Iran where he is expected to meet President Hassan Rouhani.
“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.”
I would have guessed Oman would try to play this role, but maybe the Saudis aren’t as receptive to their mediation efforts as they might be to Sharif’s.
Despite being a major recipient of Saudi financial aid, Pakistan is actually fairly well-positioned for Sharif to attempt something like this. Riyadh sees close relations with Pakistan as one of the keys to its ability to contain Iran if push comes to shove, and an important market for its Wahhabi proselytizing to boot. But Pakistan also has (has to have, really) friendly relations with Iran–historically, Pakistan supported Iran during the Iran-Iraq War, and the two countries currently have a number of economic/energy ties (Pakistan, for instance, could be Iran’s conduit to closer economic relations with China). So neither the Saudis nor the Iranians are in much of a position to simply tell Sharif to buzz off, and he’s got plenty of reasons to try to pull both governments back from the confrontational path they’re on.
The problem, and the obvious reason why Sharif’s efforts are likely to fail, is made clear when you look at his itinerary. He met with King Salman, but when he gets to Tehran he’ll be meeting with Hassan Rouhani. Unfortunately, Iran’s role in the Saudi-Iran feud is being driven by forces inside the Iranian government that don’t answer to Rouhani and that he can’t even really influence. So even if Salman was completely receptive to Sharif’s message and somehow ready to bury the hatchet (he’s not, but play along), getting the Iranians on board is going to be more challenging. Now, there are reasons to think that the power dynamics in Tehran could be changing a bit (more on that later this week), and next month’s elections might spur an actual realignment, but for right now there’s only so much Rouhani can do to try to heal the Saudi-Iran split. Unless Sharif sneaks in a visit with Ayatollah Khamenei, he’s probably going to find his mediation efforts stymied.
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