According to a recent media report, Pakistan, to ease tensions with neighboring Iran, is reviewing its initial approval of its former Army Chief General Raheel Sharif to lead the Saudi-backed 41-nation Islamic military alliance, The Economic Times reports. Islamabad’s decision follows statements made by Saudi authorities at the Arab Islamic-US summit in Riyadh May 20 – 21 which suggested that Iran, a regional rival of Saudi Arabia, is the target of the military alliance.
Defense Minister Khawaja Asif told Pakistani lawmakers that if the alliance is sectarian, Pakistan would withdraw from it. General Sharif had also reportedly told the Saudis that his decision to lead the alliance was dependent on a counterterrorist objective, not to fight any other Islamic country. He is said to be considering returning to Pakistan because of his dissatisfaction with American intervention in the Islamic military alliance and probable limitation of his role by the Saudi government.
The Riyadh summit, from which Iran was excluded, centered on two things: one, to isolate Iran and two, counterterrorism in the Middle East. India Today reported that the Pakistani Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif was humiliated at the summit. Sharif was scheduled to deliver a speech at the summit, but he was allegedly sidelined by Saudi leadership as they showered U.S. President Donald Trump with honorary awards. Also, in his speech at the summit, Trump did not mention Pakistan among the countries playing a critical role in counterterrorism. This was shocking to Pakistan which is a thirteen-year ally of the United States in the campaign against terrorism and is a recipient of Coalition Support Fund, a Pentagon administered program to reimburse U.S. allies for costs incurred during counter-terrorist and counterinsurgent operations.
Pakistan was assumed to have joined the alliance when General Sharif was approved in April to lead the alliance but according to Pakistani officials, their country’s membership is dependent on the alliance’s strict adherence to counterterrorism. The defense ministers of the participating countries will meet in Saudi Arabia soon to conclude on the terms of reference (ToRs) of the alliance. Pakistani officials said ToRs will determine Islamabad’s final decision.
A senior official familiar with the development said Pakistan plans to advocate a clear objective – counterterrorism – for the alliance at the meeting. He added that the alliance will become weak and the Muslim world more divided if the alliance should deviate from the fight against terrorism. “We are very clear we will join this alliance only to fight terrorism,” he said.
“What we need to understand is that the Terms of Reference of the alliance are yet to be finalized,” Foreign Office spokesman Nafees Zakaria said, noting that Pakistan was still deliberating over the decision to join the alliance. “We must wait until we have all the information to comment on its outcome. We shouldn’t indulge in speculations,” he said in one of his briefings, referring to the forthcoming defense ministers’ meeting in Saudi Arabia to conclude on the ToRs.
The Pakistani government has publicly renounced commitment to any initiative that targets any other Islamic country, including Iran. In addition to arguing for the motion to bring Iran on board the alliance, Pakistan has worked to unite Tehran and Riyadh as part of efforts to protect its ties with Iran; but the differences between the regional rivals are stronger than Pakistani efforts. Saudi Arabia and Iran sharply contradict each other on regional disputes.
Tehreek-i-Insaf and Pakistan Peoples Party, Pakistan’s leading opposition parties, advocate ‘neutrality’ in the Arab-Iran rivalry; but Pakistan is unlikely to completely withdraw from the alliance because of its historic alliance with Saudi Arabia.