Is Pakistan willing to jeopardise its relations with Iran for Saudi Arabia?
By Shakir Lakhani Published: April 2, 2017
Army chief General Raheel Sharif receives King Abdul Aziz Medal of Excellence from Saudi Crown Prince Salman Bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud during his official visit to Saudi Arabia. PHOTO: ISPR

It was shocking to hear Defence Minister Khwaja Asif proudly confirm that the government has agreed to the Saudi request and will allow former army chief General (retd) Raheel Sharif to command the Saudi-led military alliance of 34 Muslim nations to fight terrorism. However, observers are concerned that the coalition could be used for future conflicts against Iran and its ally Yemen. 

The National Assembly had earlier agreed that it would not be in the country’s interest to take sides in the present war between Saudi Arabia and Yemen (Iran’s ally), and had decided that Pakistan would stay neutral in the conflict. Hence, this recent announcement comes as a bolt from the blue. I would like to know how and why the government decided to agree to Saudi’s request without taking the people into confidence. This is a serious matter which should have been debated in Parliament before the decision was taken.

Perhaps our parliamentarians are too young to remember the 1965 war with India or have seem to have forgotten what happened. During the events leading up to the war, we had only two friends/allies who openly sided with us. The most vocal was the Shah of Iran and the other was President Soekarno of Indonesia. In fact, from the very beginning, Iran has been our true friend and ally. It was the first country to establish diplomatic relations with us after Pakistan became independent, and the Shah was the first foreign head of state to visit Pakistan. After we lost East Pakistan, the Shah warned India that any attack on Pakistan would be considered to be an attack on Iran. Furthermore, not many Pakistanis are aware of the fact that our national anthem is in Persian. Moreover, Iranians can converse easily with the Pakhtuns of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and our national language Urdu is closer to Persian than it is to Arabic.

Moreover, Pakistan has the world’s second largest population of Shia Muslims (more than 20%). Our government should have consulted the country’s Shia leaders before giving a no-objection certificate (NOC) to General Raheel to head the alliance.

It is therefore in our interest not to further antagonise Iran. The relations between Pakistan and Iran have recently been strained due to our closeness with Saudi Arabia, but have not yet reached a breaking point. Iran is our next door neighbour and has plenty of natural gas which we urgently require.

Moreover, for once, I totally agree with Imran Khan who has decided to oppose the government on this issue. Imran voiced strong reservations over these developments related to the country’s foreign policy and claimed that his party would take up the issue during the upcoming sessions of the National Assembly. He had previously accused the government of not taking the parliament into confidence before making such decisions of utmost importance as it is in violation of a 2015 resolution. As per the resolution, Pakistan, while vowing to protect Saudi Arabia’s sovereignty, had unanimously decided not to interfere in the unfolding developments in the Middle East, particularly the on-going civil war in Yemen.

General Sharif should listen to Imran and to those who have Pakistan’s best interests at heart, and should re-consider his decision.

In fact, I have a suggestion for both the government and the general. The government should appoint General Sharif as an ambassador at large who can act as a mediator between Saudi Arabia and Iran. If the two countries become allies and stop spending heavily on weapons meant to destroy each other, it will help both the countries and the entire Muslim world in terms of progression. Saudi Arabia should realise that its main enemy is not Iran, it is sectarianism. It should reach out to Iran and try to eliminate any misunderstanding between the two countries. Their enmity will only benefit the enemies of the Muslim world, who are relished to watch these two Muslim powers hell bent upon annihilating each other.

Hence I appeal to General Sharif to decline the offer and I urge Nawaz Sharif to appoint the general as a roving ambassador. As the only Muslim country to possess nuclear weapons, it is our duty to help our fellow Muslim brethren.

Shakir Lakhani

Engineer, former visiting lecturer at NED Engineering College, industrialist, associated with petroleum/chemical industries for many years. Loves writing, and (in the opinion of most of those who know him), mentally unbalanced. He tweets @shakirlakhani (