2016 began with a dangerous rekindling of the Cold War that has existed for some time between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Given that this tension between the two states is in part fuelling the intensity of the wars in Yemen and Syria, one realises how essential it is to change this dangerous antagonism into a kind of “detente”. But to bring about an improvement in diplomatic relations, it is necessary to restore dialogue, and this inevitably depends on other States, at least for a certain period of time. It is difficult to see Riyadh and Tehran re-establishing trust in each other, to the point of resuming normal bilateral relations, without the help of external forces and not necessarily that of the major powers. Washington, Beijing and Moscow to a lesser extent may help, of course. But as supporting roles. It is more likely that countries that are closer culturally and geopolitically have the possibility to bring about detente between the two regional powers. In that respect, two countries in the Muslim world have the ability to build a bridge between Saudi Arabia and Iran: Oman, and especially Pakistan.
Recent statements made by the Ambassador of Oman in Tehran earlier this year to the Fars new agency were very clear. Muscat is critical of the breaking off of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, decided by the latter. Not because Omanis are pro-Iranian, but because they consider that the priority for the region is stability. This position is understandable; Yemen increasingly resembles what could be called Saudi Arabia’s Vietnam. The country is prey to considerable internal tensions, and the only two forces that seem to be benefitting from the Cold War between Iran and Saudi Arabia are AI Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and Daesh.
Diplomatic circles, including in Riyadh and Tehran, cannot deny the good faith of Oman. The Sultanate has been a spearhead in the attempts at dialogue between warring factions in Syria and in Yemen. In December 2013, it was Oman that strongly opposed the militarisation of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which without it would openly have become an auxiliary force of Saudi Arabia, with the ultimate aim of a possible war against Iran. Finally, Oman has been very active in the negotiations between Iran and the West over Iran’s nuclear programme. It was the country’s leader, Sultan Qaboos, the linchpin in the secret diplomatic dialogue in the country’s capital between Tehran and Washington in 2012, who made the agreement in July 2015 possible. This is why Iran’s Ambassador in Muscat officially announced that to thank Oman for its positive diplomatic work, trade between Iran and the Gulf states would pass through the port of Duqrn. He also announced the strengthening of Iranian investment in the country and that Iran would collaborate with the Sultanate in supplying gas to Africa and East Asia. These good relations between Iran and Muscat have not prevented the Sultanate from developing significant military cooperation with the United States. Oman is an objective ally of Washington in the region, its army is Well equipped with US arms and its military bases are officially available to US forces. Furthermore, Oman did not hold back strong condemnation of the attacks against Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran, without going as far as severing diplomatic ties with Tehran, of course. While maintaining very good relations with Riyadh, it is, in fact, its only partner in the Gulf Advisory Council that is able to help find a way forward on two topics related to the Cold War between Saudis and Iranians: the issue of Yemen (Oman refused to participate in the Saudi war against that country) and the relationship with Iran (Oman is one of the few countries that maintains a friendly relationship with both countries).
However, Oman on its own will have trouble bringing about a rapprochement between Tehran and Saudi Arabia. In Riyadh, some believe the Sultanate is too close to Iran to be their main intermediary in any potential detente with Tehran. But alongside Oman, another country could playa role, probably an even more important one, in appeasing relations, and that country is Pakistan.
One advantage Islamabad has over Muscat is that it cannot be accused of acting out of necessity on the Saudi-Iranian issue. Pakistani security is played out in South Asia, mainly in relation to Afghanistan and India, and Tehran and Riyadh do have an impact, but it is relatively minor.
Whereas Oman’s peace and its economic well-being depend mainly on its relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran. Moreover, the Saudi Arabia-Iran tensions do not directly and immediately threaten Pakistan. Under the leadership of General Raheel Sharif, the army has conducted a relentless combat against the anti-Pakistan Taliban and their jihadist allies, and has put this only real danger to Pakistani citizens in a very difficult position. And yet, we have seen, especially with the visits by Nawaz Sharif and Raheel Sharif to Iran and Saudi Arabia last week, that the civil and military powers both believe that “detente” between Tehran and Riyadh is a priority for their country. In fact, one can see that Pakistani diplomacy had chosen to follow this path several months ago and has made it the core of its foreign policy in the Middle East for at least the past month. The roots of this commitment show that it is serious, and that Pakistan will not be tempted to choose sides in this destructive antagonism, at least not for now.
While the initiative of a policy of appeasement between Iranians and Saudis seems to come foremost from the Pakistani army, this position has been completely adopted by the civilian leadership. The military leadership has significant influence on issues related to Pakistani national interest, and its commitment on the issue is not insignificant. The fact that the elected government has taken on this approach, which is broadly shared by the Pakistani intelligentsia, is the assurance of a strong commitment at the state level.
One reason for this commitment to peace in the Middle East is linked to geopolitical common sense. Again, what matters for the Pakistani national interests is what happens in the south (India), but also in the north (Afghanistan). If the current tensions rise again in 2016, the Pakistani leadership knows that Saudi Arabia and Iran are likely to fight a proxy war in other countries. This is already the case in Syria and Yemen … and tomorrow, if we are not careful, Afghanistan will also be the victim of these disastrous indirect. clashes. But Pakistan is engaged with its main ally, China, in a delicate process of inter-Afghan peace. They are, by far, the major players, with the Americans playing the role of benevolent observers and the Europeans conspicuous by their absence (although Germany, with its influence in Pakistan and Afghanistan, could perhaps playa role). If the Saudi-Iranian rivalry spills over into the Afghan political game, this difficult work of inter-Afghan reconciliation will be destroyed. The other big reason for Pakistan’s interest is of course the fear of a general rise in sectarian tensions, fuelled by money and propaganda from countries involved in this Muslim Cold War. Pakistan is one of the most important Sunni countries in the world. but also a country with a very large Shiite minority. In fact, 10- 15% of Pakistanis are Shias, which makes the country the second in the world in terms of number of Shias. Since the Khomeini Revolution of 1979 and the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, until 2013, Pakistan has been a victim of sectarian tensions fuelled by foreign forces. Already in the 1990s, sectarian terrorism, notably from Sunni supremacists, was seen as a priority threat to national security by the Pakistani leadership. And it is sectarian groups that provided the anti- Pakistan Taliban with the framework for their terror campaign that targeted Pakistani citizens during the American ‘war against terrorism’ in ‘AfPak’. It is natural for both civilians and the military to make every effort to prevent such a threat from reappearing. And this is only possible by easing tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Finally, without being directly threatened by rising tensions in the Middle East, for the Pakistani economy stability is the key word in both countries. An Iran without international sanctions, finally makes it possible to build a gas pipeline between the two countries and strengthen trade ties. A peaceful Saudi Arabia guarantees that the two million Pakistanis working in the Kingdom continue to live there safely and send home a major financial windfall every year.
There is no doubt that Pakistan has more clout in this fight for the pacification of the Muslim world. But both Muscat and Islamabad should get support for their foreign policies of appeasement, especially from the EU countries. After all, the stabilisation of the Middle East is also in our interest.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are of the writer and are not necessarily reflective of IPRI policy.