LAHORE - Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit to Saudi Arabia and Iran, beginning tomorrow, is a very noble mission, in accordance with the injunctions of Islam. Accompanied by Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif, the third-time chief executive of the Islamic world’s only nuclear power will try to defuse tensions between two countries, whose relations have always been roller coaster for one reason or the other. In fact, compared to any other leader Pakistan’s prime minister is in a better position to mediate between them. Islamabad has good relations with both of them and is determined to maintain impartiality at a time tension between them is escalating. The neutrality stance maintained by Islamabad even when Saudi ministers for defence and foreign affairs visited the federal capital within a space of four days puts Pakistan in a better position to use its influence on both sides.

The prime minister, according to the announced schedule, will first visit Riyadh, where he will meet King Salman on Monday. Later, he will visit Iran and meet President Hassan Rouhani. The sequence of meetings is superb. It is Riyadh which feels agitated over Tehran’s reaction to the execution of a Shia leader. To be fair, the Shia leader was one of the 47 people executed by the kingdom on various charges, and as a matter of principle there was no justification for Iran to condemn the execution of only person. The kingdom did not single him out, and was within its right to take any action against anyone violating its law. The vandalising of Saudi embassy in Tehran was nothing but overreaction, which provided the kingdom with a justification to sever diplomatic ties. A number of other countries followed suit to express solidarity with the world’s largest oil exporter.

However, Pakistan pursued a very careful policy. It did not support Iranian reaction against the Saudi embassy and also did not break off diplomatic ties with Tehran, a step which could have provided Iran with an excuse to treat Pakistan as a follower of the rival camp. Now, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will first hear the Saudi point of view and then fly to Tehran to discuss the same with the Iranian leadership. Although it is difficult to predict the outcome of the mission, but there are no two opinions about the need for such a journey. This is not the first time that relations between the Saudi kingdom and Iran have worsened. They are already supporting opposing sides in the war-ravaged Syria. Likewise, they are fighting each other in Yemen, although not directly.

It is unfortunate that Shia-Sunni factor has never disappeared. The Arab countries had extended full support to Iraq when it was at war with Iran in the 80s. The West also stood on Iraq’s side to bleed Iran. The eight-year war destroyed the economies of both Iraq and Iran, providing their enemies with an opportunity to celebrate the success of their strategy. At present, the Saudi economy is under tremendous pressure. The fall of oil prices is adding to the problems of the kingdom and the leadership is considering alternatives to meet the shortfall in resources.  Iran has also been through very difficult periods because of international sanctions owing to its nuclear ambitions. Now that the situation is easing because of improvement in Iran-West ties, Tehran should do something to help its people improve their lives and avoid any step that could escalate tension with Saudi Arabia.

A number of Muslim countries have already witnessed disturbances and changes.

What was billed as Arab spring has turned out to be “autumn” for all the affectees. The unrest is spreading to states which remained unaffected until recently. Daesh and Al-Qaeda are targeting various Islamic countries. In such a situation Saudi Arabia and Iran should try to avoid conflicts. They should accept the face-saver being offered by the Pakistan prime minister and revert to normal relations. This is the call of the hour and in the best interest of the Ummah. Enemies of Islam will want the tensions to escalate into a war so that they get an opportunity to sell their weapons to both sides. The leaders predicting instability in the region during the coming decades are doing so in the light of their plans to add fuel to the fire.

It is incumbent upon the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Iran to foil the designs of their enemies. Restraint is the best strategy for them in the given situation.The mediation will add to the stature of prime minister at the international level and will bring him political benefits at home. His decision to take the army chief with him will promote understanding between the civil and military leaderships. It can also be hoped that the impression that the political leadership felt upset because of the army chief’s earlier solo visits to the USA and Saudi Arabia will ultimately evaporate. This important visit together will also help the prime minister make up his mind whether to extend the three-year term of the army chief, expiring in November.