M. A. Niazi

The peace mission of Pakistani Prime Minster Mian Nawaz Sharif to Saudi Arabia and Iran reflected more the panic in Islamabad than the weight of Pakistan. Now that it seems to have been succeeded by a lowering of the tensions, he and his government are doing their best to take credit. However, the killing of 24 people at Bacha Khan University Charsadda serves as a reminder that the Saudi-Iranian dispute is part of the fallout of militancy.

It is that militancy which has made Pakistan so concerned about the Saudi-Iranian dispute. Pakistan sees that any conflict between the two as likely to exacerbate sectarian tensions in Pakistan. Though a minority, Shias are enough in number to prevent the country leading a viable civic life if they were to withdraw. Pakistan is a result of the Partition of India, and thus reflects the fact that Indian Muslims always included a significant Shia element. Indeed, there was an Ismaili element. One of the most prominent leaders before the Partition was the Agha Khan, who was not only the leader of the Simla Delegation in 1906 (which got the Viceroy to agree to separate electorates) but also the first President of the Muslim League when it was founded later the same year. Then Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who led the Pakistan Movement, was also a Shia, being first an Ismaili, though he became an Ithna Ashari (which is what the large majority of Pakistani Shias, and the residents of Iran, are) towards the end of his life.

Even though Shias played such an important role in the creation of Pakistan, the country has seen an upsurge in Shia-Sunni violence. That the masses on either side do not take part in this violence is shown by the absence of Shia-Sunni riots. There have been many assassinations. And now there have emerged attacks on religious gatherings. These have been principally Muharram gatherings, because it is assumed that those at a majlis-i-aza are probably Shia. Since Partition, the services, both military and civil, have seen no sectarian discrimination, though some individual officers have developed reputations for favouring their own sects. However, among non-officials, the split has become more obvious. That split has not just got its origin in the fact that Iran is the world’s only Shia state, even before the Revolution. Before the 1857 Mutiny, the Kingdom of Oudh was the only other.

Indeed, while Shias are present throughout the Muslim world, their presence in the Indian Subcontinent is because of the Mughals, who welcomed any Muslim who came from the West. That meant those who came from Iran were welcome, and they were mostly Shia. Thus India witnessed the development of Islam where sectarian identity was not important, compared to religious, especially in contrast to the Hindus. However, when Pakistan was created, the Ahmadis were declared non-Muslim in the 1970s, and then the sectarian divide came to the fore.

It is almost as if sectarianism is meant to counter political Islam. It is often forgotten that, when the Iranian Revolution took place, it was seen as an Islamic revolution, not a Shia one, and prompted the sort of attention to political Islam that is now prompted by the kind of militancy that the Bacha Khan University attack represents It should not be forgotten that Iran was diverted from this by its war with Iraq, and the West saw it as a threat after the US Embassy hostage crisis. That crisis was referenced in the Iranian takeover of the Saudi Embassy in Teheran during the recent crisis.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir’s denial of a Pakistani proposal also reflected the real estimate of Pakistan that is held in the Gulf. True, Pakistan is one of the largest Muslim states, but it is also one of the poorest, and is seen as supplying deficits in the Gulf, such as that of labour, and by extension of armed forces. It is symbolic of the relationship that Gulf princes have been allowed by no less than Pakistan’s Supreme Court to hunt the houbara bustard. However, in contrast is Pakistan’s refusal to join in the Saudi fight for Yemen.

Yemen is almost symbolic. It is the place where Saudi Arabia wishes to resist Iran in an area close to both. Iran is supporting the Iraqi government, which is under attack by the Islamic State, which has Saudi backing. IS is also challenging the Syrian government, which has called in Lebanon’s Hizbollah (a Shia group) to defend it, as well as Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. IS is strongly anti-Shia, while the Syrian regime, which is headed by an Alawite, is seen as sympathetic, though it also is rooted in the Baath party, which is socialist in ideology. Pakistan refused to get involved because of the blowback it fears.

A Saudi-Iran conflict would lead to their respective Pakistani supporters vying with each other, up to and including committing acts of terror against each other. At the same time, the two countries would up the levels of funding to supporters. The fight might well be bloodier than present, making the present sectarian violence seem a mere prelude.

Pakistan might well see the necessity of peace between the two, but whether either Saudi Arabia or Iran see the need of Pakistan intervening in what they consider a bilateral relationship is another matter. However, it is not oil-rich. Its nuclear status gives it distinction, but both the countries do not see Pakistan as playing any role as a consumer of oil, and a poor one at that. It should also be noted that Iran has recently made a deal with the USA over its nuclear programme.

Mian Nawaz’s visit was succeeded by that of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Not only does China enjoy great leverage over both states as a major customer, but it is also a close friend of Pakistan. Xi seems to have enjoyed better luck, and though the crisis is not entirely defused, tension began to come down after Xi’s visit.

While Saudi Arabia appeared dismissive of Pakistani efforts, Mian Nawaz had to make them. First his domestic audience wanted action, because of the prejudice against intra-Muslim conflict. Second, he had to persuade his foreign audience, particularly the USA. The USA had its own reassurances to give through Secretary of State John Kerry, who attended the Gulf Cooperation Council summit. It should not escape notice that Saudi Arabia, while always currying US favour, only emerged as its firm friend after the Revolution ended the US alliance with Iran, which had extended to the recognition of Israel, which Saudi Arabia has yet to do. Iran is not exactly in US good graces, but has agreed to a deal, which has led to a lifting of sanctions. Pakistan, as the USA’s ‘major non-NATO ally’, had to do something. However, while it was busy earning brownie points with the USA, it earned little credit with the actual parties. And as the Charsadda attack showed, militancy is far from over.

n The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.