By James M. Dorsey
With no troops to command and a Riyadh-based skeleton staff, General Raheel Sharif, Pakistan’s recently retired top commander, appeared to slide into a cushy job as commander of a 41-nation, Saudi-led military alliance created to fight terrorism.
In fact, the general’s new job is everything but straightforward. He has taken on a task that is likely to require diplomatic tap dancing if he is to succeed in putting flesh on the alliance’s skeleton and ensure that his native Pakistan is not enmeshed in the bitter dispute between Saudi Arabia, one of Pakistan’s closest allies, and Iran, the South Asian state’s neighbour.
Complicating things for General Sharif is the fact that Pakistan is home to the world’s largest Shiite Muslim minority, who account for up to a quarter of its population. Pakistani critics warned that General Sharif’s appointment risked involving Pakistan not only in the Middle East’s seemingly intractable conflicts, but also in Sunni-Shiite Muslim sectarian strife.
General Sharif’s appointment of what is officially the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism, dubbed the Muslim world’s NATO, promises to give the group credibility it needs: a non-Arab commander from one of the world’s most populous Muslim countries who commanded not only one of the Muslim world’s largest militaries, but also one that possesses nuclear weapons.
Yet, General Sharif’s problems start with the alliance’s name. The alliance, announced hastily by Saudi Arabia two years ago without prior consultations with all of its alleged members, has yet to adopt a common definition of what constitutes terrorism.
Members also have yet to reach agreement on what the alliance’s priorities are: Iran, viewed by Saudi Arabia as the foremost threat, or jihadist groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. Many members, including Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia, are moreover weary of being roped into Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen that has allowed Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to emerge stronger than ever.
Pakistan’s parliament rejected in 2015 a Saudi request to contribute troops to the war in Yemen. More recently, on the eve of General Sharif’s appointment, Pakistan agreed to send 10,000 combat troops to the Saudi side of the kingdom’s border with Yemen.
Pakistan has sought to deflect criticism that it was ignoring parliament’s rejection by reaching out to Iran. General Raheel has reportedly told his Saudi counterparts that he would seek to involve Iran in the alliance. Similarly, General Sharif’s successor, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, appeared to be hedging his bets by declaring that “enhanced Pakistan-Iran military-to-military cooperation will have a positive impact on regional peace and stability.”
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir seemed to dispel any notion of cooperation, let alone reconciliation with Iran in a speech in February in which he charged that “Iran remains the biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world. Iran has as part of its constitution the principle of exporting the revolution. Iran does not believe in the principle of citizenship. It believes that the Shiite, the ‘dispossessed’, as Iran calls them, all belong to Iran and not to their countries of origin. And this is unacceptable for us in the kingdom, for our allies in the Gulf and for any country in the world.”
Mr. Al-Jubeir stipulated that “until and unless Iran changes its behaviour, and changes its outlook, and changes the principles upon which the Iranian state is based, it will be very difficult to deal with a country like this.”
However, it may, ironically, be the rise of President Donald J. Trump that will provide substance to Pakistani efforts to capitalize on the appointment of General Sharif and Pakistan’s dispatch of troops to bridge the gap between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia has wholeheartedly endorsed Mr. Trump because of his tough stance towards Iran and wants to be seen to be responding to the president’s insistence that US allies shoulder more of the burden of their defence. Iran has long called for talks with Saudi Arabia.
Recent overtures by Kuwait to mediate between the two regional powers have raised hopes that an arrangement may be possible despite the kingdom’s tough stance. Kuwaiti foreign minister Sabah Khalid Al Sabah travelled to Tehran in January to discuss ways of initiating a dialogue between Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.
Iranian president Hassan Rohani responded weeks later with a visit to Kuwait and Oman. Oman has long had close relations with Iran, mediated in various disputes involving the Islamic republic, and facilitated US-Iranian negotiations that resulted two years ago in the nuclear agreement with Iran and the lifting of international sanctions. Mr. Rohani also earlier this month sent a letter to Kuwaiti Emir Sabah al-Ahmad Al Sabah regarding efforts to tone down animosity with Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia and Iran recently reached agreement on the participation of Iranian pilgrims in the haj, the Muslim pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. The two countries failed to agree last year, preventing Iranian Muslim from fulfilling what is a key religious obligation.
Mr. Al-Jubeir, moreover, made a surprise visit last month to Iraq, widely seen as a gesture towards Iran. Led by a predominantly Shiite Muslim government, Iraq is closely aligned with Iran. Iran supports the government in its fight against the Islamic State (IS) and sponsors powerful Shiite militias that fight alongside Iraqi troops. As a result, relations between Saudi Arabia and Iraq have long been strained.
Writing in Al-Monitor, former Iranian nuclear negotiator Seyed Hossein Mousavian suggested that a 1988 United Nations Security Council resolution could serve as a basis for a Saudi-Iranian arrangement. The resolution which in ended the Iran-Iraq war in which Saudi Arabia co-funded the Iraqi effort to roll back the Islamic revolution called for regional collective security arrangements. That may be a tall order with Iran unlikely to back off its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah militia, or the Houthis in Yemen.
“For a new era to dawn in Iranian-GCC relations, the two sides have to be able to express their concerns to each other in a constructive way and translate dialogue into tangible diplomatic gains. They can look to Europe for examples on how to resolve historic rivalries and how the Peace of Westphalia or systems such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the European Union came to be,” Mr. Mousavian said.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture.