Syed Qamar Afzal Rizvi
BUILDING and maintaining close friendly relations with Muslim States is the cornerstone of Pakistan’s foreign policy. In case of a conflict between Muslim states, Pakistan has always remained equidistant. As peace promoter and facilitator, Islamabad leaves no stone unturned not only to defuse tension between the Muslim states but to also mend the fences between the West and the Muslim world. While already engaged with the Afghan Taliban to conclude a peace deal with the US (currently restarted) PM Khan has been involved in shuttle diplomacy to defuse tension in the Gulf after President Donald Trump and the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman have had asked him to do so. Just when Khan was addressing the news conference at the UN last month, Trump separately confirmed to reporters that the Pakistani leader was involved in mediatory efforts to help ease tension with Iran. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s latest visits to Tehran and Riyadh are positive peace initiatives.
Pakistan is committed to addressing emerging peace challenges — to defuse US-Iranian nuclear standoff, and to restore an atmosphere of amicability between Tehran and Riyadh —whereas finding ways for concluding a peace agreement between the US and the Taliban. PM Khan said he had been in Saudi Arabia before New York and spoken with Prince Mohammed bin Salman who also asked him to talk to Rouhani. “We assured the Saudis of our solidarity but also emphasized the need for caution,” said Pakistan’s Foreign Minister. PM Khan’s current visit to Iran and KSA comes after Khan last month said US President Donald Trump had asked him to help defuse tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Washington blamed Tehran for 14 Sept attack on the world’s biggest crude oil processing facility in Saudi Arabia. Iran denies involvement. On 12 October, King Salman approved the deployment of additional U.S. troops and equipment in response to the Pentagon announcement that it was sending some 3,000 troops to the Persian Gulf State.
First, as for the US-Iran nuclear conflict, one has to remember that the conclusion of the JCPOA between Iran and the P5+1 powers in 2015 seems to have been pragmatically concluded between the global powers—and virtually espoused by the Obama Administration. This nuclear deal or the document servers to be the best blueprint for any nuclear conflict resolution. For Pakistan, as with so many other countries in the region, the JCPOA marked an important moment to reconsider the economic opportunities posed by Iran that would no longer be frozen out of the global economy by international nuclear-related sanctions. However, the Trump Administration’s May 2018 decision to withdraw from the JCPOA threatens to break the pact.
If Iran were to fail to reach an acceptable arrangement with the JCPOA’s European participants, it has been tantamount to allowing the deal to unwind and would resume its previously restricted uranium enrichment activities. Factually, Iran has diluted much of its nuclear stockpile so that it contained no more than 5% uranium-235. In addition, Tehran has implemented various restrictions and provided the IAEA with additional information about its nuclear program pursuant to the July 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which Tehran concluded with the P5+1.
Second, Pakistan has made strong efforts to balance the competing desires and interests of its regional allies in the face of strenuous tests. In two particular incidents—Saudi Arabia’s actions against Houthi rebels in Yemen and Iran’s explosive reaction to the execution of a Saudi Shia cleric—Islamabad’s diplomatic intervention-cum-pacification has been stretched to their utmost. “Regional issues need to be resolved through peace dialogue. We also emphasised that any goodwill gesture will be responded with a goodwill gesture and good words,” said the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
A closer look at the circumstances surrounding these regional crises presents an informative picture of Pakistan’s motivations and methods for responding to tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran. And yet pragmatically, the closeness of Iran’s trading relationship with India and the development of the Chabahar Port is not an opportunity cost for Pakistan. The sooner regional trade projects can go forward, the better for Islamabad. A de-escalation of tension between the United States and Iran is beneficial for Pakistan in and of itself — acting as mediator will increase its prestige on the world stage. If the Trump Administration genuinely seeks a resolution to rising tension with Iran, then it should cautiously approach Pakistan to serve as a catalyst for dialogue. And third, Prime Minister Imran Khan called on US President Donald Trump to restart peace talks with the Afghan Taliban and said Washington has a “duty” to calm the Kashmir standoff with India. “Stability in Afghanistan means stability in Pakistan,” Khan said on 23 September at the start of his meeting with Trump on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in New York. As for the Trump’s secret talks with the Taliban at the Camp David Trump currently revealed his remarkable idea — he would not only bring the Taliban to Washington, but to Camp David would have met the Taliban at Camp David — scene of secret 1978 talks as Jimmy Carter brokered peace between Israel and Egypt — days before the 18th anniversary of 11 September attacks, which triggered the US invasion that toppled the militants’ regime.
The Afghan Taliban denounced President Donald Trump’s decision to call off peace talks with the insurgent group, claiming American interlocutors were happy with a deal both sides had negotiated in Doha, and that 23 September had been decided as a date to move to the next step—the start of negotiations with other Afghan factions. Because of the recently revived peace process— wherein Pakistan is playing a key role a meeting has been held in Islamabad, between Taliban officials and the American diplomat, Zalmay Khalilzad. “We still […] believe that the American side will come back to this position […] Our fight for the past 18 years should have proven to the Americans that we will not be satisfied until we witness the complete end of the occupation,” the group said in a statement released on Twitter by spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid.
It is a truism, “Pakistan is very aware of its strategic importance here,” said Madiha Afzal, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. Pakistan may also be trying to leverage its role to press for foreign intervention in its conflict with India over the disputed Himalayan territory of Kashmir, something India rejects. Pakistan finds itself in a unique position to serve as a peace facilitator between Washington and Tehran. Despite the unravelling of negotiations building towards a once-imminent US-Taliban peace deal, Imran Khan’s acumen undoubtedly crafts newfound confidence on the world stage. Pakistan is emerging as a regional peace negotiator. Nonetheless, Islamabad cannot tolerate Modi’s coercion strategy in the IoK. Yet, Islamabad’s any positive peace- promoting role should not go unrewarded in terms of Kashmir issue.
—The writer, an independent ‘IR’ researcher-cum-analyst based in Pakistan, is member of European Consortium for Political Research Standing Group on IR, Critical Peace & Conflict Studies, also a member of Washington Foreign Law Society and European Society of International Law.