Pakistan’s delicate balancing act while attempting to juggle positive relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran is going to get tougher with the announcement of Pakistan’s inclusion into the Saudi Anti-terror alliance and Raheel Sharif taking a place at the head of its military operations.

The Iranian government has conveyed its message to Pakistan – while they were told that a No Objection Certificate (NOC) had been issued for Raheel Sharif’s appointment, they were never asked how that would make Iran feel.

The Pakistani government took a positive step in informing a friendly state of its decision, but sometimes that is just not enough. What this identifies is the Pakistani government’s inability to completely assuage the concerns coming in from Iran, a friendly country and a neighbouring state to boot.

Iran’s statement regarding the alliance speaks volumes: “We are concerned about this issue... that it may impact the unity of Islamic countries.” The fact that Tehran has not been invited to join the alliance, and has already stated that it will not take part even if was invited to join, belies the Saudi government’s conviction of this body acting as a unifying factor for the international Muslim community.

Another problem with this alliance is that all details are still shrouded in mystery – Pakistan does not seem too sure on the role it will play, and neither does Saudi Arabia for that matter. Forming the alliance was all well and good, but its aims (apart from the general ‘fighting terrorism’ aspect) are still unclear, not to mention that Iran’s exclusion is indicative of the alliance taking a sectarian tone once it becomes operational.

Tehran’s suggestion of a “peace coalition” is much more feasible, but Pakistan’s current ‘allies’ in the military alliance are not likely to take this into consideration, especially because the offer comes from Iran. Sovereign nations have the autonomy to do as they see fit and Pakistan must not fall into the trap of being forced to follow a certain direction just because Muslim NATO is choosing to do so. However, with former COAS Raheel Sharif at the head, it is difficult to presume that the government will do otherwise.

No matter what the government or the armed forces state, a military alliance is bound to have an impact on the country’s foreign policy alignment. Estranging Iran at a crucial time such as this, when Tehran has been invited to join CPEC, and Pakistan is moving closer towards Russia with the ever-deepening friendship with China is not sensible. Regional alliances and closer cooperation among neighbouring countries should be prioritised. Now that the government has more or less confirmed that we will be joining the Muslim NATO, it is the state’s duty to ensure that Iran is convinced that Pakistan’s participation does not imply that it is forsaking its relationship with Tehran.