Fault-Lines
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James M. Dorsey |

With no troops to command and a Riyadh-based skeleton staff, General Raheel Sharif, Pakistan’s recently retired top commander, appeared to slide into a cushy job as commander of a 41-nation, the Saudi-led military alliance created to fight terrorism.

In fact, the general’s new job is everything but straightforward. He has taken on a task that is likely to require diplomatic tap-dancing if he is to succeed in putting flesh on the alliance’s skeleton and ensure that his native Pakistan is not enmeshed in the bitter dispute between Saudi Arabia, one of Pakistan’s closest allies, and Iran, the South Asian state’s neighbor.

Complicating things for General Sharif is the fact that Pakistan is home to the world’s largest Shiite Muslim minority, who account for up to a quarter of its population. Pakistani critics warned that General Sharif’s appointment risked involving Pakistan not only in the Middle East’s seemingly intractable conflicts but also in Sunni-Shiite Muslim sectarian strife.

Read more: Nasser Janjua thinks Raheel Sharif will bring unity among ‘Muslim world’

Muslim Coalition or War Against Yemen?

General Sharif’s appointment of what is officially the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism, dubbed the Muslim world’s NATO, promises to give the group the credibility it needs: a non-Arab commander from one of the world’s most populous Muslim countries who commanded not only one of the Muslim world’s largest militaries but also one that possesses nuclear weapons.

Yet, General Sharif’s problems start with the alliance’s name. The alliance, announced hastily by Saudi Arabia two years ago without prior consultations with all of its alleged members, has yet to adopt a common definition of what constitutes terrorism.

General Sharif’s appointment of what is officially the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism, dubbed the Muslim world’s NATO, promises to give the group the credibility it needs.

Members also have yet to reach agreement on what the alliance’s priorities are: Iran, viewed by Saudi Arabia as the foremost threat, or jihadist groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. Many members, including Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia, are moreover weary of being roped into Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen that has allowed Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to emerge stronger than ever.

Read more: Pakistan has approved Gen. Raheel’s new job: Are we digging a hole for ourselves?

Pakistan’s parliament rejected, in 2015, a Saudi request to contribute troops to the war in Yemen. More recently, on the eve of General Sharif’s appointment, Pakistan agreed to send 10,000 combat troops to the Saudi side of the kingdom’s border with Yemen.

Pakistan has sought to deflect criticism that it was ignoring parliament’s rejection by reaching out to Iran. General Raheel has reportedly told his Saudi counterparts that he would seek to involve Iran in the alliance. Similarly, General Sharif’s successor, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, appeared to be hedging his bets by declaring that “enhanced Pakistan-Iran military-to-military cooperation will have a positive impact on regional peace and stability.”

Saudi Arabia’s Anti-Iran Stance

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir seemed to dispel any notion of cooperation, let alone reconciliation with Iran in a speech in February in which he charged that “Iran remains the biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world. Iran has, as a part of its constitution, the principle of exporting the revolution. Iran does not believe in the principle of citizenship. It believes that the Shiite, the ‘dispossessed’, as Iran calls them, all belong to Iran and not to their countries of origin. And this is unacceptable for us in the kingdom, for our allies in the Gulf and for any country in the world.”

Saudi Arabia has wholeheartedly endorsed Mr. Trump because of his tough stance towards Iran.

Mr. Al-Jubeir stipulated that “until and unless Iran changes its behavior, and changes its outlook, and changes the principles upon which the Iranian state is based, it will be very difficult to deal with a country like this.”

Read more: Is PTI right in taking a position against Gen. Raheel Sharif going to Saudi Arabia

However, it may, ironically, be the rise of President Donald J. Trump that will provide substance to Pakistani efforts to capitalize on the appointment of General Sharif and Pakistan’s dispatch of troops to bridge the gap between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia has wholeheartedly endorsed Mr. Trump because of his tough stance towards Iran and wants to be seen to be responding to the president’s insistence that US allies shoulder more of the burden of their defense. Iran has long called for talks with Saudi Arabia.

Recent overtures by Kuwait to mediate between the two regional powers have raised hopes that an arrangement may be possible despite the kingdom’s tough stance. Kuwaiti foreign minister Sabah Khalid Al-Sabah traveled to Tehran in January to discuss ways of initiating a dialogue between Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates.

He {Gen. Raheel} has taken on a task that is likely to require diplomatic tap-dancing if he is to succeed in putting flesh on the alliance’s skeleton and ensure that his native Pakistan is not enmeshed in the bitter dispute between Saudi Arabia.

Iranian president Hassan Rohani responded weeks later with a visit to Kuwait and Oman. Oman has long had close relations with Iran, mediated in various disputes involving the Islamic republic, and facilitated US-Iranian negotiations that resulted two years ago in the nuclear agreement with Iran and the lifting of international sanctions. Mr. Rohani also, earlier this month, sent a letter to Kuwaiti Emir Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah regarding efforts to tone down animosity with Saudi Arabia.

Read more: Pakistan Army engagement in the Middle East: Walking a fine line between Saudi Arabia and Iran

Saudi Arabia and Iran recently reached agreement on the participation of Iranian pilgrims in the haj, the Muslim pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. The two countries failed to agree last year, preventing Iranian Muslim from fulfilling what is a key religious obligation.

For a new era to dawn in Iranian-GCC relations, the two sides have to be able to express their concerns to each other in a constructive way and translate dialogue into tangible diplomatic gains.

Mr. Al-Jubeir, moreover, made a surprise visit last month to Iraq, widely seen as a gesture towards Iran. Led by a predominantly Shiite Muslim government, Iraq is closely aligned with Iran. Iran supports the government in its fight against the Islamic State (IS) and sponsors powerful Shiite militias that fight alongside Iraqi troops. As a result, relations between Saudi Arabia and Iraq have long been strained.

Writing in Al-Monitor, former Iranian nuclear negotiator Seyed Hossein Mousavian suggested that a 1988 United Nations Security Council resolution could serve as a basis for a Saudi-Iranian arrangement. The resolution which in ended the Iran-Iraq war in which Saudi Arabia co-funded the Iraqi effort to roll back the Islamic revolution called for regional collective security arrangements. That may be a tall order with Iran unlikely to back off its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah militia, or the Houthis in Yemen.

Read more: Prospects of China’s mediation with Saudi Arabia and Iran; Where Pakistan fits in?

“For a new era to dawn in Iranian-GCC relations, the two sides have to be able to express their concerns to each other in a constructive way and translate dialogue into tangible diplomatic gains. They can look to Europe for examples of how to resolve historic rivalries and how the Peace of Westphalia or systems such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the European Union came to be,” Mr. Mousavian said.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog. This article is republished with the permission of the author. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.

James Dorsey, an award-winning Singapore-based Research Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and also a columnist for many publications over the years. His career in journalism and consulting has spanned almost four decades and several continents. He has covered ethnic and religious conflict and terrorism across the globe for more than three decades. Over his career, Mr. Dorsey served as a foreign correspondent for among others The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor and UPI in the Middle East, Europe, Africa, Central America and Washington. He is also the Chairman and Founder of Quest Ltd., which runs a global network of 800 journalists interested in water and sustainable development. Currently, Mr. Dorsey writes free-lance and frequently appears as a commentator on radio and television.

1 COMMENT

  1. Writer has precisely elaborated a number of difference of opinion and hostile projection between saudi arabia and Iran as a whole detrimental to Muslim Ummah which needs to be sorted out for the benefit of peoples living in the islamic countries especially in arab countries. In my opinion if all countries stop the interference in other and adopt a congenial environment for fruitful negotiations will certainly move in right direction to quell the unrest among the muslim countries

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