Prime Minister Imran Khan currently is on a mission to defuse tensions between US-Iran and Iran-Saudi Arabia which have heightened the prospects of an armed conflict in the region, in the backdrop of a missile attack on Saudi oil installations and an Iranian Oil tanker. Though the relations between US and Iran were already strained but the foregoing developments have pushed them to the end of the cliff. There is a permeating view among the political analysts in the US, the media, among trouble shooters within the US administration and the European allies of the US that now was the best chance to salvage the situation before it spells disaster in the region and beyond. It is believed that the decision by the Trump administration to withdraw from the nuclear deal with Iran and imposition of sanctions though has hurt Iranian economically and pushed her to the wall but it had also strengthened their resolve to fight back with a boomerang effect for the US. There are strong voices demanding a walk back from the brink, more so from the European countries which were part of the nuclear deal with Iran. Probably President Trump has also come to realize the dangers unfurled by his unimaginative and foolish move to wriggle out of the nuclear deal and the burgeoning conflict in the Middle East. That is why he asked Prime Minister Imran Khan during his visit to the US to act as a go between US and Iran.

Similar request was made to him by the Saudi Crown Prince when he visited Saudi Arabia before embarking on a visit to US to address the UN General Assembly. The trust reposed by Saudi Arabia and the US President in PM Imran Khan to defuse the situation is indeed reflective of Pakistan’s importance as a stakeholder in the regional peace and her indispensable status as a facilitator of the possible interface between the leaders of the parties to the conflict. The task is very arduous and complex as also admitted by Imran Khan himself in an interview with CNN before leaving for Saudi Arabia after his visit to Iran but it is worth the effort.

Admittedly there are myriad of kinks in relations between US and Iran which besides the nuclear deal and US sanctions also include Yemen conflict which is not only a humanitarian tragedy of epic proportions but also a strategic calamity for the Gulf partners of US. The US will have to revisit its foreign policy in the Middle East and Iran will also have to show more flexibility in regards to negotiations on its nuclear programme and other contentious issue. That indeed is a very tricky proposition. But as they say nothing is impossible if there is a genuine will to move ahead. It will be a great contribution by Pakistan if it could bring the leaders of Iran and USD to the negotiating table.

As regards relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, they unfortunately have their roots in history and are also the cause of cleavages among the Muslim countries in the Middle East and the Gulf region. Foreign policy of Pakistan under all regimes has given top priority to orchestrating and maintaining close ties with all the Muslim countries and remaining neutral in case of a conflict between the brothers in faith. It has an enviable history of endeavours to consolidate unity among the Muslim countries and espousing their causes at the global level. Pakistan enjoys special relationship with Saudi Arabia and her relations with Iran though have witnessed ups and downs but both countries have always looked forward to remain in a cooperative mode. Pakistan’s friendship with Saudi Arabia and Iran enabled her to play a role in defusing the burgeoning tensions between the two on many occasions successfully. Pakistan tried to mediate between Iran and Iraq during 8-year war. It was due to her efforts that an ice-breaking meeting between the late Saudi King Abdullah and the hen Iranian President Hashmir Rafsanjani took place on the sidelines of OIC summit in Islamabad in 1997. The meeting is believed to have paved the way for the subsequent thaw in tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In the Yemen war Pakistan maintained its neutrality as per its foreign policy and refused sending troops to Yemen but promised to deploy troops to protect Saudi territorial integrity and Islamic holy place located inside the Kingdom. However in view of the heightened tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the backdrop of the Yemen conflict, death of over 400 Iranian pilgrims during the Haj stampede and execution of a Saudi dissident Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr Al Nimr and snapping of diplomatic ties between the two countries the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and COAS General Raheel Sharif visited Saudi Arabia on January 18, and Iran on January 19, 2016. Though initially some quarters had doubts about the success of Pakistan’s mediation efforts, subsequent developments proved that the decision was timely and fruitful. Not only were the Prime Minister and the Chief of Army Staff received warmly, their mediation effort was appreciated in both Riyadh and Tehran. In Riyadh, the Prime Minister held talks with the Saudi King, Salman bin Abdulaziz, and in Tehran, he met the Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani emphasizing that a conflict between two major Muslim states would only damage the larger interests of the Muslim Ummah. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran responded positively to the mediation offer. Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to appoint a ‘focal person’ on the issue. Pakistani leadership’s effort was appreciated by other Muslim states as well, particularly Turkey. It saved the situation from escalating into an armed conflict. Pakistan also played a role in lowering tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia over sectarian clashes in Bahrain which had raised the chances of a war in the Gulf region.

Keeping in view the historic role that Pakistan has played in defusing tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia it can be hoped that the current efforts by Prime Minister Imran Khan though may not lead to ironing out the deep-rooted historic differences between the two countries but would surely meet with success in de-escalating the threatening situation in the Middle East like in the past. Similarly in the backdrop of US willingness to hold negotiations with Iran and a glimmer of hope ignited by the Iranians in regards to settling issues through dialogue, the possibility of the leaders of two countries interacting with each other as a result of Imran Khan’s efforts looks quite promising. If Pakistan as a result of its efforts also succeeds in bringing about dialogue between US-Iran and Iran-Saudi Arabia it would be a great diplomatic achievement by her which would also strengthen its credentials as a peace- broker and peace loving nation.

The writer is a freelance columnist.

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