Pakistan has joining the Saudi Arabia-led “Muslim NATO” military alliance with a hope of bringing Iran and Saudi Arabia closer and achieving unity in the Islamic world. On Friday, Pakistan formally gave the green light for its former army chief, General (retd) Raheel Sharif, to command the new powerful military alliance based in Saudi Arabia. It’s a move that will likely deteriorate the otherwise improving relations between Islamabad and Tehran.
Pakistan, however, has no plans to cut ties from Iran by joining the 41-nation coalition. In fact, Islamabad is doing the opposite by focusing its diplomatic efforts on convincing Iran to join the so-called “Muslim NATO.” While the exchange of hostile gestures between Riyadh and Tehran shows no signs of going away, Pakistan is willing to risk its good relations with both the Saudis and Iranians to serve as a bridge to foster unity in the Islamic world.
Is Pakistan insulting Iran by joining the Muslim NATO?
The Saudi-led military coalition, known as the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism or IMAFT, aims to fight terrorist groups in the Middle East. As Pakistan’s civil and military authorities join the organization, Islamabad looks back at Iran to make sure its ties with its key Muslim neighbor aren’t hurt by the decision.
Islamabad does not want its participation in the “Muslim NATO” to look like it is taking sides. Islamabad remains neutral on the long-standing conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which goes back to the ideological Shia-Sunni rivalry and is constantly fueled by the geopolitical competition over Tehran’s and Riyadh’s superior roles in the region.
At risk of derailing relations with Iran, Pakistan is launching a diplomatic initiative to bring Tehran and Riyadh closer through their joint efforts within the “Muslim NATO” to work together against terrorism and radicalism in the region. However, Iran has so far shown reluctance to join the Saudi-led military coalition.
Pakistan’s secret mission to foster unity in the Muslim world
The decision for Islamabad to join the Muslim NATO is no reckless move of the Pakistani government, as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif assigned a special mission to Attorney General Ashtar Ausaf, according to The Express Tribune, which cited unnamed credible sources.
In March, Ausaf took a trip to Riyadh where he met with the Saudi Crown Prince. The agenda was to discuss ways of melting the ice with Iran and convincing Tehran to join the military alliance based in Saudi Arabia. Ausaf’s mission goes beyond Riyadh, as the attorney general is also expected to visit Tehran this week to held a series of closed-doors meetings with Iranian officials. Their goals are to ensure that by joining the Muslim NATO, Pakistan will not hurt its ties with Iran and to try to convince the Iranians to join the coalition.
A source cited by The Express Tribune said that fostering “some kind of rapprochement” between Tehran and Riyadh is a “daunting task indeed,” as the Muslim rivals disagree on a number of things, including the issue of the U.S. presence in the region.
Pakistan’s ‘daunting task’ to bring Saudis and Iranians closer
Pakistan, whose trade with Iran is expected to skyrocket to $5 billion within the next four years in the wake of warming ties, is nonetheless hell-bent on melting the ice between Iran and Saudi Arabia, according to the source. When Sharif announced he would accept Saudi Arabia’s offer to command the new military alliance, he stressed that he wanted to see other Muslim states, including Iran, Iraq and Syria, be part of the Muslim NATO. The last thing Pakistan wants right now is to be seen as taking sides in the Iran-Saudi Arabia confrontation.
Iran’s reluctance to join the coalition is based on the questionable assumption that Riyadh will pursue its sectarian goals in the Middle East. For years, Iran and Saudi Arabia have engaged in a heated war of words, accusing one another of supporting proxies in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
Pakistan doesn’t want to lose its growing friendship with Iran, which has already given birth to a number of lucrative projects between them, and prior to joining the Muslim NATO, Islamabad stressed that it would leave the alliance if Saudis ever start using it to pursue their sectarian goals.
Sharif heading Muslim NATO is actually a ‘good’ thing for Iran
While Iran may view the retired Pakistani general’s commanding of the Saudi-led military alliance as a negative thing, the same source ensures Tehran that it should be viewed as a positive thing. As long as Sharif heads the 41-nation coalition, no initiative that could hurt Pakistan’s interests, which include its friendship with Iran, will be implemented by it.
The Muslim NATO is said to be focused on anti-terrorism missions in the Middle East. Since Sharif’s acceptance of the Saudi offer was first reported in early January, sources close to the Pakistani commander of the military alliance have repeatedly told the media that the Muslim NATO will focus on promoting intelligence and communications between Muslim-majority countries with the goal of eradicating ISIS from the Middle East.
Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia: What next? Friendship or disaster?
The new developments in relations between Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia come as Islamabad and Tehran are increasing their strategic cooperation. While Pakistan’s participation in the military alliance could derail its ties with Iran, Pakistani and Iranian officials seem adamant to keep their friendly relations afloat, no matter what. Earlier this year, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani took a trip to Pakistan where he met with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
During the meeting, Rouhani and Sharif stressed the importance of strategic cooperation between them and pledged to improve economic, diplomatic and military ties. In 2016, Tehran and Islamabad signed six initiatives to boost bilateral cooperation in multiple areas, such as economy, security, health and commerce.
Saudi Arabia keeps a close eye on the growing ties between Iran and Pakistan, and now Iran finds itself in a very similar situation, carefully watching the rapid development in Pakistan-Saudi ties from aside.