If there has ever been a time to praise this government, it is now

Published: January 7, 2016

Advisor to Pakistan's Prime Minister on National Security and Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz listens to a question during a news conference with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif at the Foreign Ministry in Islamabad April 8, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

Advisor to Pakistan's Prime Minister on National Security and Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz listens to a question during a news conference with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif at the Foreign Ministry in Islamabad April 8, 2015.
PHOTO: REUTERS Smoke rises from Saudi Arabia's embassy during a demonstration in Tehran January 2, 2016.

On January 2, 2016, Saudi Arabia executed 47 convicts in one day, including a popular Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. It was one of those moments in history that are not intended to spark extreme global consequences but end up catalysing a chain of events that expose the cracks in the international world order. Like the gunshot that broke into World War II.

The next day, the Saudi embassy in Tehran was ransacked by an enraged mob of Iranian locals. The protestors took down the Saudi Arabian flag and set fire to parts of the building.

A hush fell over the world audience.

And then the madness began.

On January 4th Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir announced that Saudi Arabia was severing ties with Iran. The ambassador to Iran was called back, trade was stopped, flights were grounded.

Just as the international community was coming together to prepare a unified front against ISIS, the severity of the Middle Eastern divorce sent ripples across continents.

Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE followed Saudi Arabia out the door, and Jordan, Djibouti, and Turkey helped slam it shut.

Turkey’s President Erdogan said in a speech in Ankara that,

“Forty-six of those who were executed are Sunni and they are executed because they are affiliated with al-Qaeda. One of them was a Shia religious leader. This decision was previously taken and Saudi Arabia implemented it. This is their decision.”

The Obama administration awkwardly remained tight-lipped, and on January 6th Sartaj Aziz stood in front of the national assembly and cleared his throat.

He explained Pakistan’s stance on the squabble between the two nation states. He said that the attack on the Saudi embassy was “unfortunate and deeply regrettable”. And that,

“As a member of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Pakistan will continue to play its positive role on this issue. Pakistan will play the role of a bridge to improve relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia.”

Opposition parties and many Pakistanis have called Aziz’s statements “ambiguous” and have called for the deliverance of a “clear policy”.

I, however, feel fiercely proud. The kind of diplomatic maturity that Pakistan is exhibiting in this international crisis deserves more than just a round of applause. It will go down in history as an act that helped contain this deadlock that could have precipitated into complete chaos.

We, as Pakistanis, recently have not been on the right of history. Now that we are, we must remain steadfast.

The Saudi Arabia-Iran debacle is reminiscent of the diplomatic crisis that Pakistan faced during the Iran-Iraq war. Pakistan had faced significant pressure from the Saudi Arabia bloc to adopt a position against Iran. However, our government wisely chose to stay neutral on the matter which improved our relations with Iran greatly.

President Ziaul Haq, despite a fierce enmity with Ayatollah Khomeini, had this to say:

Pakistan ended up doing the right thing.

A few years from now, our misguided members of opposition and troubled critics, will realise that once again, Pakistan has done the right thing.

Pakistan and Iran used to be the most natural of allies. Iran was the first country to recognise Pakistan and the two countries solidified their cordial bonds with a treaty of friendship in 1950. Both countries were staunch US allies and remained amicable even when Pakistan courted the Arab states to thwart India. After the Iranian revolution, however, things changed.

Iran adopted the “Death to America” mantra and hurled insults at Pakistan’s pro-US policies. Despite that, Pakistan extended a hand of friendship by being the first country to recognise the Islamic Republic.

Pakistan and Iran might have spent some time at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, but have always managed to maintain a decent relationship. Recently the two countries have taken up projects in the exchange of energy. The Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline is one major project that is expected to resolve Pakistan’s energy crisis. Moreover, Pakistan imports 74MW of electricity from Iran for its coastal Makran division, which has the potential to export further up to 3,000 MW.

With Pakistan’s balanced stance in the Saudi Arabia-Iran tussle, it has been astute in safeguarding its own interests.

When Obama has not raised a finger against Iran to protect the US-Iran nuclear deal, why should Nawaz Sharif?

Although, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, too, have had good relations over the years vis-à-vis barrels of oil and significant foreign aid, recently Pakistan has shown some resistance towards Saudi Arabia’s bullish ways. It decided not to participate in the Yemen war but assured Saudi Arabia of its supports.

Nawaz Sharif said,

“Any threat to Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity would evoke a strong response from Pakistan.”

So, essentially, with its decision to be the bridge between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Pakistan has grabbed onto the reins of leadership in the Islamic world while the two big powers bicker and fight.

If there has ever been a time to praise this government, it is now.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have always had strained relations. Over the decades, due to increased sectarianism, they have only gotten worse. The entire world has served as a battle field for their proxy war. Iran’s support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria has not fared well with the Saudis and Saudi Arabia’s close association with the US and anti-Shia rhetoric has not been popular with the Iranians.

Karim Sadjadpour, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment and an expert on the Middle East has said that,

“The paradox of Iran and Saudi Arabia is that the Saudis have a superiority complex vis-à-vis the Shia and an inferiority complex vis-à-vis the Persians.”

What good would it have done us to get embroiled in an altercation that is not only doused in religious hues, but is also ethnic? Not to mention that it had nothing to do with us.

With their fall-out, the world has become even more polarised. The bulwark against ISIS has broken down and the two main leaders in the Islamic world have become entangled in a dangerous political brawl.

Iran, just a few hours ago, accused Saudi Arabia of carrying out an airstrike on its embassy in Yemen. Saudi Arabia clearly hates Iran more than ISIS. As a result the Syrians, Yeminis, Iraqis and Lebanese will continue to suffer. The seeds of war are being flung across the Middle East.

Mr Aziz met with the new ambassador from Iran on January 6th and promised good relations. He will be meeting Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir today to discuss the newly formed Islamic alliance to counter terrorism. A new era in the Islamic world is emerging, perhaps an Islamic Cold War, with Pakistan at the helm, as the voice of reason.

Aseela Haque

Aseela Haque

The author studied Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. She tweets as @aseelahaque

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Rex Minor

    Pakistan ended up doing the right thing.

    Madam author; doing nothing and standing on the fence is always the right choice.
    Is this what you are proud of?

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • stevenson

    I agree with the author. Despite whatever criticism we have of Pakistan, it remains the most liberal in terms of political and media freedom in the Muslim world. Things are discussed in parliament and the media even debating what is best for the country and not always making the right decision. This shows a rare maturity. Although, institutions, civil society and democracy may not be perfect, Pakistan is one of the few Muslim states that are functioning on those things. This makes it unique in the Muslim world and one of the reasons why Pakistan is more respected in the global community over other Muslim nations run by Kings and Dictators or armed groups. Pakistan can play an important role in mediation for Saudi Arabia and Iran. Also it can be a role model for Muslim countries that there is an alternative to authoritarian rule by Kings and Dictators.Recommend

  • Sami

    Balanced article. If someone will read without political bias then the current government stance is commendable.Recommend

  • Shehryar Butt

    you are absolutely right, a neutral stance is the best stance in this situationRecommend

  • Parvez

    Pakistan is 200 million + ….70% Sunni, 30% Shia …….taking a middle of the road policy is simple common sense.Recommend

  • Sane

    Who decides foreign policy and related strategy? Sartaj Aziz…..phew….phoohRecommend

  • Sane

    88% Sunnis and 12% Shias among Muslims.Recommend

  • Ghost

    In such a situation standing on the fence is the best thing to do and yes we are proud of it. We jumped in the arena in afghanistan and look how the chickens are coming home to roost.Recommend

  • allyali

    author is one sided and clearly biasedRecommend

  • M Baloch

    The argument is very simplistic and naive, Zia never expressed his enmity towards Iran and revolutionary Iran sent official delegation though both sides knew about each other. And even now last visit of Iranian FM Javad Zarif recieved cold welcome from our foreign office although he came here before going to India. Pakistan has already deployed forces on Yemen border, was quick to respond on attack on Saudi embassy on Iran but remained silent on missile attack on Iranian embassy in Iran. Raiwand’s Sharifs have family and business relations with Saudis and they are saying that they can’t afford annoying Arabs but can endanger an extincting bird. An under the carpet, they are supplying weapons for Yemen and Syria and the author says we are neutral, well done LUMS’s social sciences school!Recommend

  • sterry

    Nations look after their own interests and people first. Pakistan doesn’t have the level of instability that Middle Eastern countries have because the nation prefers to sit on the fence instead of fighting for others.Recommend

  • S Hashmi

    Does the author expect us to believe that the PM’s statement was his own government’s stance? Since when did they have the brains to give such strategic statements?Recommend

  • Rex Minor

    We jumped in the are na in afghanistan and look how the chickens are coming home to roost.

    This is news but nothing more than a reality show, The great General Parvez Musharaf got cold feet and caved in to the american junior officer and made a fool of himself.

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • asad

    Gun shot that started world war IRecommend

  • Tahir

    Is this your university assignment? And you thought ohhh wait a minute my uncle can actually publish this as well… Oh yaa rite get it published you said….. Only tolerable if it was an assignment in one of my classesRecommend

  • Shoeb

    Nicely written