Zardari mediating between S. Arabia, Iran?
By Baqir Sajjad Syed | From the Newspaper
ISLAMABAD: President Asif Ali Zardari may have overreached by pushing for his Middle East peace plan that has already hit a roadblock.
“Mr Zardari is keen to see stability in the region. And that is something which is in our national interest because we have multiple interests in Middle East,” the President’s spokesman Farhatullah Babar said while confirming that the president has been pursuing a peace initiative.
Officially nothing has been said about the move as yet, but some of the statements made by Mr Zardari during his visits to the region suggested that he was trying to defuse regional tensions.
Having paid back-to-back visits to Tehran and Riyadh last month, Manama was the latest stop in Mr Zardari’s regional travels for casting himself in the role of a peacemaker.
The unusual composition of presidential delegations for these visits was a strong indication in itself that the missions were not routine bilateral trips. Not on one of these occasions foreign minister or foreign secretary was included in the entourage.
The visits were finalised through the interior ministry quite unlike the regular foreign travels of the president.
Officials confirmed that Foreign Office had been bypassed by the presidency in the regional contacts.
Controversy about absence of FO aside, diplomacy in the troubled Persian Gulf region is struggling to take off primarily because of absence of an effective quid pro quo for Tehran, diplomats said in background discussions.
Not that Tehran sees little for itself in the move, Riyadh is also less than enthusiastic about it. None of the two major players look to owning it up. “It is your president’s plan”, “Ask Mr Zardari” are the replies one gets while speaking to Saudi and Iranian diplomats.
However, they do privately corroborate that the president had been into a mediation effort.
Notwithstanding the difficulties and complexities in repairing the Saudi-Iranian ties, the President is said to be keeping his hopes alive, but at the same time is realistic about the prospects for success.
“I must say there is optimism, there is every reason to be optimistic, but it is definitely a time consuming process … Let us hope,” said Mr Babar, who accompanied Mr Zardari on all the three trips.
The formula that the President has been carrying with him during these trips, according to an official source, is that Iran ends interference in Bahrain; Manama addresses the political grievances of the majority Shia community; and Riyadh and Tehran hold direct talks to sort out problems in their relations at the foreign ministerial level.
Additionally Iran, under the proposed plan, is expected to help in stabilisingYemen and Syria.
“We have been urging all sides to avoid violence and extreme measures, we have welcomed dialogue in Bahrain and we have also called for total non-interference,” the spokesman said.
Mr Babar insists that the initiative was out of concern for stability in the region, but diplomatic insiders say it was initiated on the West’s prodding.
The Western leaders, who were concerned about the growing instability in the region, pushed Islamabad to use its relations with Riyadh and Tehran for defusing the situation.
Hoping to build a legacy as a peacemaker, Mr Zardari started his efforts by first dispatching Interior Minister Rehman Malik to Tehran and Riyadh.
Initially, those privy to developments say both Tehran and Riyadh appeared to be open to ideas.
“Tehran was feeling a bite of international sanctions and Saudi Arabia had been jolted by the Arab Spring,” a diplomat said.
However, as the talks progressed Iran wanted something tangible vis-à-vis sanctions and some of its other concerns.
They wanted Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to help end their isolation. But, Mr Zardari had nothing substantive to offer.
Even the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project was not faring well.
The Saudis, on the other hand, were circumspect for other reasons.
The fragile situation in the country and less than warm ties with both Riyadh and Tehran in recent years also undermined Mr Zardari’s mediation efforts.
But, as Mr Babar says Pakistan’s reaching out was in itself important, Mr Zardari may not have met immediate success, but still he is happy to have tried.