Imran Khan’s Saudi-Iran Diplomacy

October 16, 2019

In mid-October, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan traveled to Iran and Saudi Arabia to discuss ways to reduce regional tensions. Khan met with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani on October 13. After the meeting, Tehran indicated a desire to engage with Riyadh. "Our two countries emphasized that regional issues could only be resolved through political means and dialogue," said Rouhani. "We openly welcome any goodwill gesture by Pakistan for providing more peace and stability for the whole region, and we are ready to assist Pakistan for providing full peace and stability for the whole region." Khan was optimistic about the chances of diplomacy. “I am happy to facilitate talks between Tehran and Riyadh...I am very hopeful as I had constructive talks with the (Iranian) president,” he said after the meeting.

 

On October 15, Khan met with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Saudi statements on the meeting were brief and did not mention Iran directly. "During the meeting, [Khan and Prince Salman] reviewed strong ties between the two brotherly countries and fields of joint cooperation as well as ways of enhancing them. They also discussed the latest developments in the region and a number of issues of common interest,” said an official government . Pakistan said Khan "stressed the need to resolve regional peace and stability differences and disputes through political means and diplomacy."

Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Pakistan’s foreign minister, said Iran and Saudi Arabia both indicated a willingness to meet for talks after the trip. Khan offered to host diplomats from both countries in Islamabad, as a neutral site for Tehran and Riyadh to “iron out their differences."

Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia escalated after drone attacks on two major oil facilities in Saudi Arabia. On September 14, the Abqaiq and Khurais facilities—both run by the state-owned company Saudi Aramco—were struck by “projectiles” in a pre-dawn attack. Riyadh blamed Tehran for the attack and vowed to respond to the “terrorist aggression.” Iran denied any responsibility for the attacks on Saudi oil facilities. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned that Tehran would respond to a U.S. or Saudi retaliatory military strike with “all-out war.”

Iranian state media reported that the Sabiti, a tanker owned by the National Iranian Tanker Company (NITC), was struck by two missiles in the Red Sea. possibility. President Hassan Rouhani claimed a foreign government was responsible for the October 11 attack, which occurred in the Red Sea some 60 miles away from the Saudi Arabian port of Jeddah. “If a country thinks that it can create instability in the region without getting a response, that would be a sheer mistake,” Rouhani said.

Pakistan has historically had strong relations with both Iran and Saudi Arabia, which made Islamabad an ideal mediator for regional disputes. Pakistan and Iran have had close ties since the early Cold War. Iran was the first nation to recognize Pakistan in 1947, and the Shah was the first head of state to visit Islamabad. Since then, the two neighbors have closely coordinated on issues ranging from trade to border security. Pakistan and Iran also share religious ties. Iran’s population is predominantly Shiite while Pakistan is home to a large Shiite Muslim minority—43 million people or roughly 20 percent of its population.

Pakistan also has close ties to Saudi Arabia, Iran’s chief rival. Pakistan has provided support, arms and training to the Saudi military. Saudi Arabia is one of Pakistan’s biggest trade and investment partners. In 2018, Saudi Arabia pledged $6 billion of financial aid to ease Pakistan’s balance-of-payments crisis. In 2019, Saudi Arabia announced more than $20 billion in new investments in Pakistan. More than 2.5 million Pakistani nationals live and work in the kingdom. "Saudi Arabia has been one of our closest friends. Saudi Arabia has helped us when we have been in need. The reason for this trip is that we do not want a conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. We recognize that it is a complex issue," said Khan during his trip to Riyadh.