There is no doubt that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has the tendency to undertake too many foreign visits, spending abroad the time which would be more profitably spent at home attending to the pressing political, economic and social problems afflicting the country. But this remark certainly does not apply to the mediation mission that he has undertaken to visit Riyadh and Tehran on 18-19 January with the objective of mediating between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The relations between these two brotherly countries, which have been generally strained since the Islamic Revolution in Iran with some exceptions here and there, have taken a nosedive more recently. The execution by Saudi Arabia of a prominent Shia cleric, Shaikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, amongst 46 others, on 2 January drew a furious response from Iran. The Iranian authorities condemned the execution of the Shia cleric and protesters attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran and its consulate in Mashhad. Saudi Arabia retaliated by severing diplomatic relations with Iran. Bahrain and Sudan followed suit to show their solidarity with Riyadh while UAE and Kuwait downgraded their relations with Iran.

The UN Security Council in a statement issued on 4 January condemned “in the strongest terms” the attacks on the Saudi missions in Iran and urged Tehran “to protect diplomatic and consular premises against any intrusion or damage.” It also called upon both Saudi Arabia and Iran to maintain dialogue and take steps to reduce tensions in the region. Later, the Foreign Ministers of GCC in an extraordinary meeting held in Riyadh on 9 January asked Iran to “respect the principle of good neighborliness in words and actions” and “stop actions that cause instability in the region.” An emergency meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the Arab League held in Cairo the following day condemned the attacks on Saudi Arabia’s missions in Iran. However, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir insisted that his country would continue to support efforts for achieving peace in Syria, despite heightened tensions with Iran.

Pakistan also in a statement issued on 4 January deplored the attack on the Iranian embassy in Tehran, expressed serious concern over the recent escalation of tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and called for a peaceful resolution of all issues. Later, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a meeting with the visiting Saudi Foreign Minister, Adel al-Jubeir, on 7 January assured him of Pakistan’s support to Saudi Arabia in case of any threat to its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Adviser to the Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz told the media on 9 January that Pakistan would be prepared to play the role of a mediator between Riyadh and Tehran at an appropriate time.

Saudi Deputy Crown Minister and Defence Minister Muhammad was informed during his brief visit to Islamabad on 10 January that Pakistan pursued a policy of promoting brotherhood among Muslim countries and that it was ready to offer its good offices for the resolution of differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit to Riyadh and Tehran on 18-19 January for mediation should be seen against this background.

Although Pakistan must undertake this task for the sake of the resolution of differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and for peace and stability in the region, which obviously would serve Pakistan’s own best interests, it is not going to be an easy task by any means. To begin with, there is unfortunately a trust deficit between Tehran and Islamabad for historical and geopolitical reasons. Besides the memories of the 1990’s when Pakistan and Iran supported opposing sides in Afghanistan, Pakistan is also seen by Iran as too closely allied with Saudi Arabia and the US. It would, therefore, need an extraordinary effort on the part of Nawaz Sharif and his government to win Tehran’s trust for the success of his mediatory efforts. While mediating between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Nawaz Sharif and his colleagues would have to bear in mind all the time the imperative of maintaining an even handed approach and the necessity of securing and retaining the trust of both Riyadh and Tehran. This is important not only for the success of the mediatory efforts but also for maintaining our valuable friendly relations with both Iran and Saudi Arabia. This would be a difficult but certainly not an impossible task.

Strains in relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia are not a new phenomenon. They have been there for decades and have been exacerbated more recently, fueled by regional rivalry and sectarian considerations. The developments in Iraq, Syria and Yemen over the past few years have added to these strains, increased the mistrust between Tehran and Riyadh, and created suspicions about each other’s intentions concerning the future shape of the region. Any mediation effort will have to come to grips with these daunting issues.

The resolution of the differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia will ultimately require a commitment by both Tehran and Riyadh to refrain from policies of interference in the internal affairs of the countries in the region, support UN efforts to restore peace and stability in Syria and Yemen leaving the destiny of these countries in the hands of its peoples free from external interference, and join hands in combating terrorism while pursuing internally policies of tolerance, moderation and political pluralism. Only such an approach would set in motion a process which over time might succeed not only in improving relations between Iran and Saudi but also in promoting peace and stability in the region.

To set the ball rolling in the direction indicated above, it is imperative that Saudi Arabia and Iran are persuaded to restore diplomatic relations and to engage each other in a dialogue over bilateral and regional issues guided by the principles of sovereign equality, mutual respect and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs. The substance of the dialogue and its direction must be determined by policies of mutual understanding and accommodation. While each country must be allowed to deal with its own affairs free from external interference, the other side of the coin is that each country must also pursue internally policies of tolerance and moderation allowing minority communities to live in peace and harmony.

Undoubtedly this is a tall order and reflects the difficult task that faces Pakistan and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif as he initiates the mediatory effort. As these lines are being written, we don’t know the end result of his visits to Riyadh and Tehran on 18-19 January.

Personally, I would be satisfied if he is able to achieve some progress towards the restoration of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the commencement of a dialogue between them on the basis of the principles of sovereign equality and mutual respect.

Hopefully, the rest will follow thereon.