PM begins visit to Iran, Saudi Arabia tomorrow

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Shafaqna Pakistan:Prime Minister Imran Khan will on Saturday embark on a trip for mediation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, officials disclosed.

The prime minister would first travel to Iran where he will have a night stay. His meeting with President Hassan Rouhani has been scheduled for Sunday. He will later in the day go to Riyadh for meetings with the Saudi leadership.

Speaking at the weekly media briefing on Thursday, Foreign Office spokesman Dr Mohammad Faisal confirmed Mr Khan’s upcoming trip.

Read: Possibility of PM Imran’s visit to Saudi Arabia, Iran ‘on the cards’: FO

“The visits of the Prime Minister to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran are on the cards,” he said without giving dates for the trip. He told reporters: “I will update you as and when things unfold.”

The mediation initiative is being taken at the request of Saudi Arabia. Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman had during Mr Khan’s last visit to Saudi Arabia asked him to help defuse tensions with Iran as Saudi Arabia wanted to avoid war.

Read: PM Imran says he is mediating with Iran after Trump asked him to help

Iranians have expressed their readiness to accept the offer, but have made it conditional to the US and other western forces leaving the region.

Pakistan is not new to mediation between the two Gulf rivals. There have been at least four major and minor initiatives since the 80s. Pakistan first tried its hand at mediation in the Middle East rivalry during the Iran-Iraq war, later in 1997 a meeting of the leadership of Iran and Saudi Arabia was hosted in Islamabad on the sidelines on an OIC Summit, and President Musharraf too tried to work on the matter in 2003/4, but his efforts did not make progress because he was seen too close to the US. The recent most initiative was in 2016 when the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif and Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif tried to get involved after tensions flared between the two sides in the aftermath of execution of top Saudi Shia cleric Baqir Al-Nimr. On that occasion, Saudi Arabia did not encourage the initiative.

Former foreign secretary Aizaz Chaudhry, who was in office at the time of the last initiative, said Pakistan had a vested interest in Iran-Saudi Arabia rapprochement. Speaking at a roundtable conference hosted by the Islamabad Policy Institute (IPI) on ‘Mediation in the Persian Gulf: Initiatives, Strategies and Obstacles’, he noted that Pakistan has strong credentials for such a role, but at the same time there are huge challenges including deep mistrust, Saudi fears about rising Iranian influence and regional power play.

“This is a timely and historic initiative. We, however, have to be realistic because of the difficult and complex issues involved in this rivalry,” Mr Chaudhry maintained, adding that if these disputes were not addressed now, global politics would further deepen the gulf.

Geo-political situation and all sides realising their vulnerability make the timing of the initiative most conducive, he maintained.

The former foreign secretary proposed that PM Imran Khan should during the trip warn leaders of both countries about the consequences of war; seek a minimum common agenda on which the effort could be taken forward; offer to host a summit or a senior leadership meeting of both countries in Pakistan; and renew good offices to both countries. The minimum agenda, he said, could be an understanding on not attacking each other and uninterrupted oil traffic.

Pakistan’s former ambassador to Iran Mr Asif Durrani observed that good sense had prevailed with Saudi Arabia after it realised that the war in Yemen was not going its way even after four years. He emphasised the need for confidence-building measures between Iran and Saudi Arabia for the peace effort to progress.

Prof (Dr) Qandeel Abbas said there was need to change the narrative about Iran-Saudi conflict from a sectarian one to that of power contestation.

Arab Affairs analyst Ali Mehr said PM Khan could at best play the role of a messenger between the two countries. He warned the US role and influence on Saudi Arabia could prevent any breakthrough in the initiative. He suggested that the PM should be exclusively focused on finding some solution of the Yemen war. He further proposed that Pakistan should join hands with Iraq and Oman for making a bigger effort for rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

IPI’s Executive Director Prof Sajjad Bokhari said because of its legitimate political, economic and security interests in the region Pakistan needs to work for peace there.