Against all odds, when the Pakistani rupee appreciated in the forex market, it caught many of us by surprise. Some applauded the finance minister, declaring the feat nothing less than a miracle, while others especially the retired cadre of the foreign service, hinted at the great cost at which it had been accomplished. Though our finance minister has defended the Saudi largesse of 1.5 billion USD, leaks in the international media have confirmed that this time, the Saudis have crossed our palm with silver to buy our neutrality on the Syrian conflict.

According to foreign media sources, on the Syrian issue, Pakistan is aligning itself with Saudi Arabia, considering selling arms to Syrian rebels and sending Jihadis to fight the Iranian supported Syrian regime. If this goes through, we might drag ourselves in the geopolitical mess of the Middle East, antagonising a benign and friendly neighbour and crawling further towards the brink of sectarian catastrophe.

Before discussing the implications of our drift in the Syrian conflict, let us observe how Saudi-Iranian rivalry is shaping the events in the Middle East.

The struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran is fueled as much by the sectarian divide, as is driven by geopolitical necessities and ambitions. Gregory Gauss of the Brooking Institution of Doha highlights this fact: “The Saudis and their allies in the Gulf remain certain that Iran’s heightened regional role will inevitably to inspire Shia discontent, which makes Iran’s ascendance an indirect threat to the stability of the Gulf monarchies.” This power calculus has made the rivalry between Arab monarchies and Iran a zero sum game, where gain by one is considered a loss by the other.

Before 1979, Saudi Arabia and Iran were the two pillars of US foreign policy in the Middle East. Under the tutelage of the Shah, Iran had reasonable diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia. This changed in 1979, when revolution broke out in Iran, overthrowing the Phalavi dynasty. The Iranian Supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini upbraided Saudi monarchy as “antithetical to Islam,” calling for an uprising across the region. Since then, Iran considers Saudi Arabia as a US proxy, whereas Saudis view Iran as an aspiring hegemon.

After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the regional power calculus has turned in Iran’s favour. The Americans did all the hard work, getting rid of Iran’s nemesis Saddam Hussein, only to withdraw later, leaving behind a power vacuum that Iran has successfully filled. In Lebanon, the Saudis supported an anti-Syrian alliance and offered billions worth of aid to the Lebanese army, only to witness Iran backed Hezbollah rise to power. In 2007, the Saudis brokered a power sharing agreement between Hamas and Fatah, which fell through as Hamas took over the Gaza strip and looked towards Iran for support.

The situation became more challenging with the Arab spring.

Where it presented serious problems for the Kingdom, it also offered a golden opportunity to check increasing Iranian influence in the region, and nowhere is it more pronounced than in Syria.

Syria is the conduit through which Iran supports Hezbollah and Hamas. If Bashar al - Assad falls, it would be a major set back to Iranian expansionist designs. To discourage such an eventuality, Iran is financially and militarily supporting Assad’s regime, which has been further bolstered by the Hezbollah. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia, the United States and numerous other countries are supporting rebel groups in Syria. A civil war in Syria, has now turned into a regional power struggle.

But for Saudi Arabia, the sum of all fears is a nuclear armed Iran. Saudis have publicly declared that in such an eventuality, they will acquire their own nukes. The thaw between US and Iran has forced the Saudis to explore other avenues, amongst which, foremost is the nuclear armed (Sunni) republic of Pakistan, whose Prime Minister, in the words of Saudi prince Waleed bin Talal, is “Saudi Arab’s own man in Pakistan.” According to an intelligence chief of a major Middle Eastern country, if Iran acquires WMDs, Saudis might solicit Pakistani help in obtaining a nuclear umbrella.

When it comes to finances, we are always stone broke and looking for a fast buck. That is why we define our foreign policy in terms of financial and military aid. We sold our services to the Americans in their war in Afghanistan, for which we are paying a hefty price.

Pakistan should not repeat the same mistakes. We should stop mortgaging our foreign policy and stick to our old policy of neutrality in Arab affairs and leave the Middle East to its own actors. If we make the mistake by drifting into the Saudi orbit at the expense of our relationship with Iran, it might bring the Middle Eastern broil into our own streets which are already divided on sectarian and ethnic lines.

The writer is a freelance columnist and has worked as a broadcast journalist.

Email:adnanfalak@gmail.com

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