Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (right) hosts Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan at a joint press conference in Tehran on Sunday. (Iranian Presidency – handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Pakistani PM Visits Gulf Region in Quest to Reduce Tensions

Imran Khan says differences between countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia should be smoothed out through dialogue

[ISLAMABAD] – On a swing through the Gulf region that also includes a stop in Riyadh, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani have agreed that in the interest of security and stability, they will work together to resolve regional issues.

“Pakistan does not want any conflict in the region,” Khan said at a joint news conference in Tehran after a Sunday meeting with the Iranian leader. “Conflict in the Gulf region could lead to an increase in oil prices and more poverty for developing countries. We recognize that it is a complex issue but we feel that this can be resolved through dialogue.”

His visit comes at a time of heightened tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, mostly due to attacks that Riyadh has blamed on Tehran. He was due to arrive in the Saudi kingdom on Tuesday.

Khan said in Tehran that Pakistan would “play the role of facilitator rather than mediator in sorting out the differences between the two Muslim countries,” adding that “this is purely an initiative of Pakistan, and no one asked us to do this.”

For his part, Rouhani said that Tehran and Islamabad “share the view that regional issues should be settled through dialogue,” adding that “any goodwill gesture will be responded to with goodwill gestures and deeds.”

Rouhani also used the term “economic terrorism” in referring to US sanctions levied on Iran in the wake of Washington’s withdrawal from a 2015 multilateral nuclear deal. The deal was aimed at barring Tehran from producing nuclear weapons.

Much of the regional tension involving Iran stems from the American sanctions, which are known to be cutting into the Islamic Republic’s economy.

Khan revealed that when he met with US President Donald Trump during the recent opening session of the UN General Assembly in New York City, the president asked him to mediate between Washington and Tehran. Pakistan shares a long border with Iran and represents Iranian interests in the United States.

While in Iran, Khan also met with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and discussed with him Pakistan’s desire to bring regional peace and security.

Islamabad maintains close relations with Riyadh, and some 2.5 million Pakistanis work in the desert kingdom. Officials in Pakistan say they are well aware of the potential consequences of Iranian-Saudi tensions, noting that they could impact internal Pakistani security by inflaming Shia-Sunni violence. About 80 percent of Pakistan’s population is Sunni.

Asma Khalid, a senior researcher at the Islamabad Policy Institute, told The Media Line that “the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia has become more complex and bitter due to domestic politics, [the] sectarian divide, and involvement in various regional conflicts.”

Khalid said that although previous Pakistani attempts at mediation between Iran and Saudi Arabia had not deescalated the situation, she believes that conditions have changed and that “Pakistan can play an important role in defusing the growing tensions” between the two Gulf-area countries.

“Iran,” she said, “has expressed unconditional confidence in Pakistan’s initiative to mediate peace between the Gulf rivals. Pakistan’s close ties with both states increase the chances of successful mediation, though foreign policy priorities and regional dynamics can limit the chances of success.”

Michael Kugelman, a senior associate at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center, told The Media Line that “Pakistan is a logical choice as a mediator because it has cordial ties with both countries and enjoys the trust of both.”

He noted, however, that these relationships were not symmetrical and that this could have an impact on mediation.

“Pakistan’s ties to Riyadh are much stronger and deeper than they are to Tehran, and the latest Saudi bailout package to Pakistan will intensify its formidable leverage over Islamabad,” Kugelman said. “Islamabad will face challenges in trying to give equal billing to each side’s goals and needs, given the pressures of being a close ally of the Saudis.”

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