Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, will visit Iran Sunday to meet President Hassan Rouhani before heading to Saudi Arabia as part of his mediation efforts to help defuse tensions between the two countries.
Khan’s peacemaking mission comes days after he announced in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly that U.S. President Donald Trump and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had both asked him to mediate with Tehran.
“Pakistan maintains close relations with Saudi Arabia and it is our strategic partner. Iran is our neighbor and friend. Pakistan wishes to prevent further deterioration in differences between the two brotherly Islamic countries,” Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said Friday.
“Very soon I will be accompanying the prime minister and we will travel to Iran, we will also visit Saudi Arabia. Our effort will be to help remove the misunderstandings and reduce the tensions to preserve regional peace,” Qureshi told reporters while speaking in his native eastern city of Multan.
The foreign minister noted Pakistan can ill-afford another conflict in the region because it is already dealing with security and economic challenges stemming from the war in neighboring Afghanistan, which entered its 19th year this month.
Washington had blamed Tehran for last month's attack on the world’s biggest crude oil processing facility in Saudi Arabia, fueling tensions in the Middle East.
Historically strained U.S.-Iran relations have deteriorated over the past year since Trump withdrew from a 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers. Trump reimposed sanctions on Iran, prompting the Shi'ite Muslim nation to gradually reduce its commitments under the deal to limit controversial uranium enrichment operations.
Tehran denies involvement in the September 14 strikes that were claimed by the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen, which are fighting a Saudi-led military coalition.
Pakistan has traditionally relied on financial assistance and import of oil on deferred payments from Saudi Arabia. Pakistani military troops are also stationed on Saudi soil to train local forces.
But with its large Shi’ite minority and a nearly 900-kilometer border with Iran, Pakistan has stayed neutral in Middle East tensions. Islamabad declined a Saudi call a few years back to join the Riyadh-led military alliance fighting the Houthi insurgents.
Asif Durrani, a former Pakistani ambassador to Iran, says Pakistan’s natural stance has in fact provided the opportunity for the country to play the role of a mediator.
“Had Pakistan been siding with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia or Iran, such a role would have been out of the question. Therefore it is important for Pakistan to maintain a neutral stance, primarily aimed at bringing the two antagonists on the negotiating table,” Durrani said.
Adam Weinstein, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, says Pakistan could offer Riyadh and Tehran a face-saving channel of communication and path towards de-escalation.
“Pakistan's relationship with Riyadh is far deeper than with Tehran. However, Pakistan has demonstrated that Saudi aid doesn't buy unquestioning submission to Riyadh's directives and Islamabad's position on the sidelines of the Yemen conflict is just one example of this,” said Weinstein who served in Afghanistan and works in international trade and law regulations.