ISLAMABAD— A senior Pakistani official is in Iran on an unscheduled visit, which comes amid reports Tehran is increasingly upset at Islamabad’s alleged attempts to boost Saudi-backed support for Syrian rebels.
Iranian leaders also are said to be worried about rising attacks against minority Shi'ite Muslims in predominantly Sunni Pakistan.
Iranian and Pakistani media reported Monday that Sartaj Aziz, a Pakistani adviser on foreign policy and national security, went to Tehran to discuss security concerns facing neighboring Afghanistan after the drawdown of NATO forces, as well as the conflict in Syria.
The Pakistani delegation met with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and conveyed “a special message” from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Pakistan's foreign ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam said the talks were "part of preparatory visits in the run-up" to the prime minister’s visit to Iran next month.
Aziz’s talks in Tehran come as Sharif’s government is under increasing criticism at home for its alleged shift in Islamabad’s traditional policy of staying neutral in the Syrian conflict.
Opposition parties are demanding the Sharif government explain a so-called recent Saudi donation of $1.5 billion to cash-strapped Pakistan. The transaction came after a flurry of trips to Islamabad by Saudi leaders. It also followed reports that Saudi Arabia was seeking Pakistan’s help in training, as well as recruiting, volunteers to strengthen rebels in Syria.
In an interview with VOA prior to his trip to Iran, however, Aziz dismissed these reports and opposition concerns as misplaced.
“Our relations with Saudi Arabia have been good and warm through the last 40, 50 years," said Aziz. "We have 2 million workers there, they remit about $4 billion to us every year. In the last five years there was a cooling off with Saudi Arabia because hardly any major [Saudi] leader has come [to Pakistan]. So, now when the government [in Islamabad] has changed, obviously we have had four ministerial or crown prince visits.”
Aziz said the diplomatic warmth toward Saudi Arabia does not mean Pakistan would want to compromise its traditionally friendly ties with neighboring Iran.
"The concern that it will mean no relations with Iran is wrong," he said. "We are trying to establish a better balance than was there in the last five years, and the prime minister is going to visit Iran very soon to reestablish the warmth of this relationship because we are next-door neighbors, we have lot in common, and therefore relations between Iran and Pakistan have to be balanced.”
Aziz also denied recent reports in U.S. media that al-Qaida and its associated militant groups are moving to Syria from their alleged bases in Pakistan’s northwestern tribal areas.
“First of all the government has nothing to do with it. There are of course large number of what you call jihadi organizations and people," said Aziz. "They are also within the Middle East they are in other countries. So, if somebody is recruiting them for different purposes we have no control over them. But our own soil we would not allow to be used and I don’t think Pakistan even will encourage this.”
Critics fear that Islamabad’s involvement in the Syrian conflict could intensify sectarian tensions between Pakistan's majority Sunni and minority Shi'ite Muslims. The issue already is an irritant in ties with Iran because Pakistan has suffered a rise in attacks against the Shi'ite population blamed on pro-Taliban Sunni extremist groups. Officials estimate the violence has claimed lives of more than 2,000 people in the past five years.