ISLAMABAD - Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan held talks Sunday with leaders in Iran to formally begin a diplomatic offensive he said was aimed at defusing the neighboring country’s escalating tensions with Saudi Arabia and the United States.
Khan told a joint news conference after his “wide-ranging consultations” with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani that his country’s close ties with both Tehran and Riyadh go a long way back and Islamabad will do its utmost to prevent a conflict between the two Islamic countries.
“We recognize that it's a complex issue. But we feel that this can be resolved through dialogue,” Khan stressed and announced he plans to travel to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday to further his peace mission.
“I have been very encouraged talking to you Mr. President. I feel encouraged and I go in a very positive frame of mind to Saudi Arabia and we will act as a facilitator. We would like to facilitate talks [between Tehran and Riyadh],” Khan said.
The Pakistani leader noted his country has previously hosted Saudi Arabia and Iran for talks to help them iron out mutual differences and it is ready to do it again.
For his part, Rouhani said he agreed with Khan that regional tensions must be settled through political talks, promising to assist Pakistan in its peacemaking efforts.
“I told Mr. Prime Minister that we openly welcome any goodwill gesture by Pakistan to promote regional peace and stability,” the Iranian president stressed.
Khan emphasized his peace Middle East mission is “purely a Pakistan initiative”, though he acknowledged the United States also has a role in it. He also has said previously that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has asked him to help mediate tensions with Iran.
“When we were in New York, President Trump spoke to me and he wanted us to facilitate some sort of a dialogue between Iran and the United States… I know there are difficulties but whatever we can do we will be happy to facilitate,” Khan said while referring to his last month's meeting with Trump on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.
Rouhani said he discussions with Khan also focused on how Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers could be restored to its previous status and ultimately fully implemented.
Last year, Trump unilaterally withdrew from the 2015 agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and reimposed sanctions on Iran, prompting the Shi'ite Muslim nation to gradually reduce its stated commitments to limit controversial uranium enrichment operations.
“We emphasized as a key point that the United States should return to the JCPOA and lift the sanctions,” Rouhani said.
Washington and Riyadh blame Tehran for being behind last month’s strikes against key Saudi crude oil processing facilities, which fuelled regional tensions. Iranian officials deny the charges.
Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen, which are fighting a Riyadh-led military coalition, took responsibility for the September 14 attacks.
Rouhani noted he also conveyed his concerns to Khan regarding Friday's missile attack on one of Iranian oil ships near the port of Jeddah. The Iranian leader said his country has “clues” and will continue investigations to determine who the culprit is behind the attack before coming up with a “proper response."
Khan met Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei before concluding his one-day official visit to Tehran.
Khan explained Pakistan is promoting peace because it can ill-afford another regional conflict at a time when it is already dealing with security and economic challenges stemming from the 18-year-old war in neighbouring Afghanistan. The Pakistani prime minister has lately also facilitated peace talks between the U.S. and the Taliban to help bring an end to the Afghan war.
Pakistan has traditionally relied on financial assistance and import of oil on deferred payments from Saudi Arabia to support its troubled economy. Pakistani military troops are also stationed on Saudi soil to train local forces. More than 2.5 million of Pakistanis are living and working in the kingdom.
However, with its large Shi’ite minority and a nearly 900-kilometer border with Iran, Pakistan has stayed neutral in Middle East tensions. It declined a Saudi call a few years back to join the military alliance fighting the Houthi insurgents in Yemen.