Can Pakistan help end row between Saudi Arabia and Iran?

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By Aamir Latif

KARACHI, Pakistan

 Pakistan appears to be hopeful about its much-publicized mediatory role aimed at defusing mounting tensions between arch rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Analysts, however, do not anticipate a significant breakthrough in bilateral relations between the feuding governments any time soon.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif paid back-to-back visits to Riyadh and Tehran, and said that the regional rivals had agreed to resolve tensions sparked by the execution of Saudi Shia cleric Nimr-al-Nimr, through negotiations.

Critics, however, said that Sharif’s visit is merely an attempt to solidify Pakistan’s diplomatic position vis-à-vis its relations with neighboring Iran and longtime defense and economic partner Saudi Arabia.

“I do not see any prospects for this campaign,” Lt General Talat Masood, an Islamabad-based security analyst, told Anadolu Agency. “It might defuse the immediate tension for the time being, but in the long-run, nothing will change. The very complex and ongoing power struggle between the two countries will continue, and it is beyond Pakistan’s capacity to deal with it.”

Diplomatic ties between Islamabad and Riyadh soured last year after Pakistan refused to take part in the fight against Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen as part of the Saudi-led military campaign.

“Pakistan cannot afford to take sides as it is already engaged on multiple fronts,” Masood said, referring to fears that standing alongside Saudi Arabia against Iran could trigger a sectarian divide in the South Asian nuclear state.

Pakistan, an overwhelming Sunni-majority nation, has a history of sectarian violence. Scores of Shias and Sunnis have been killed in tit-for-tat violence over the last three decades. Shia Muslims account for a small percentage of Pakistan’s population of some 180 million.

“The statements made by leaders in both Iran and Saudi Arabia are contrary to what Sharif said,” Sami Ibrahim, an Islamabad-based political analyst, said.

Ibrahim said that although Saudi Foreign Minister Adil bin Jubeir and his Iranian counterpart Javad Zareef were interviewed separately shortly after Sharif’s visit, they both “categorically denied” what the Pakistani prime minister said.

“Both foreign ministers blamed each others’ countries for exporting terror worldwide,” Ibrahim added. “The Saudi Arabian foreign minister openly stated that his country feels threatened by Tehran’s nuclear program, while the Iranian foreign minister blamed Saudi Arabia for exporting Wahabism around the world, in addition to trying to sabotage Tehran’s nuclear talks with world powers.”

Other analysts, however, see Pakistan’s move as a step in the right direction.

Express TV host Javed Chaudhry stated on his show Kul Tak (Until Tomorrow), that Pakistan’s attempts to mediate between the two counties “is a positive initiative, which has already yielded results.”

Chaudhry, who accompanied Sharif during his visit to Riyadh and Tehran, told Anadolu Agency that “the two countries have agreed to appoint focal persons to cooperate with Pakistan in its mediatory efforts.”

“The next step is for Pakistan to invite the Saudi and Iranian leadership to Pakistan to accelerate the mediation,” he added.

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