ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - Pakistan's senate demanded to know why the administration had sent its former army chief to head what some called an anti-Iran Arab military coalition, despite a 2015 parliamentary resolution that the country would maintain neutrality in regional conflicts.
Senator Farhatullah Babar, who had called this issue to attention, said in the session Thursday that the strong anti-Iran sentiments expressed at a recent summit in Riyadh made it clear the coalition was "not against terrorism, it's against Iran."
He was referring to a summit hosted by Saudi Arabia in Riyadh late last month and attended by dozens of Muslim heads of state, along with the president of the United States.
While the stated agenda was terrorism, strong anti-Iran rhetoric permeated key addresses, as well as the final declaration.
In his speech, President Donald Trump said Iran gave terrorists “safe harbor, financial backing, and the social standing needed for recruitment” and asked other nations to help isolate it.
King Salman bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia accused Iran of “expansionist aspirations, criminal practices, and interference in the internal affairs of other countries.”
The summit's concluding declaration blamed Iran for instability in the region and said the leaders committed to “firmly confront the subversive and destructive Iranian activities inside their countries and through joint coordination.”
Babar said the summit seemed to send out a message that “Iran was the root cause of terrorism, that it was not part of the Muslim world, and that it would be isolated.”
He also demanded to know why Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's administration failed to fulfill its commitment to place the terms of reference of the military coalition before the parliament before they were rectified.
Defending his government's position, Sharif's chief foreign policy adviser Sartaj Aziz tried to dispel the idea that the coalition was anti-Iran. The statements made at the summit, he said, were political rhetoric and had nothing to do with the terms of reference of the military coalition, which had yet to be finalized. He promised to place the terms before the parliament as soon as they were ready.
“The focus of the alliance is still counter terrorism,” he said. Chairman Raza Rabbani responded that the anti-Iran statements came from the Saudi king himself.
“To expect that he who plays the flute is not going to be calling the shots is being a little optimistic,” he said.
Aziz also told the Senate that members of the coalition would be free to decide which activity they wanted to participate in. The choice, he said, ranged from “political consultation, intelligence sharing, capacity building, counter narrative, and military cooperation.”
Aziz assured the Senate that the presence of General Sharif would not affect Pakistan's foreign policy.
Which led to the chairman asking, “Has the government disowned General Raheel Sharif?” and demanding to know how the administration planned to distance itself from military intervention in a country if its former army chief was heading the military alliance.
“I agree that the Riyadh conference has widened the sectarian divide,” Aziz acknowledged, but asserting the presence of Sharif likely would have a neutralizing impact.
Out of control
Aitzaz Ahsan, another senator belonging to the opposition People's Party, told VOA that Aziz's responses were an effort to conceal the fact that things went out of their control.
“[The government] joined an alliance without knowing what the alliance was all about. It went to a conference … without knowing what the ultimate declaration of the conference would be. States don't do that,” Ahsan said.
He added that General Sharif probably still did not know what he had committed to.
Parliament was clear, according to Ahsan, that Pakistani troops could not be committed to any foreign adventure at all on behalf of any Muslim state fighting another Muslim state.
An exception for holy cities
The only exception was the defense of Mecca and Medina, the two cities considered holy in Islam, he noted.
Saudi Arabia initially announced the military coalition in December, 2015. It started off with 34 members but has expanded to 40. Defense ministers of the member states were supposed to meet and develop programs and mechanisms of the coalition, though the meeting has not yet taken place.
When General Sharif's name originally appeared as a candidate to head the military coalition, Pakistan's Defense Minister Khwaja Asif said the government would discuss this issue in parliament before allowing him to go. That never happened.