The retired military commander’s new job may prove disastrous for Pak-Iran bilateral ties.
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdul Aziz has appointed Pakistan’s former Army chief, General Raheel Sharif, as commander of the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT), a force of 39 Muslim states “combating international terrorism.” Given Sharif’s record of initiating the invasion of North Waziristan under Operation Zarb-e-Azb and other counter-terrorism action across Pakistan—which brought down terrorist acts significantly—the appointment is well-deserved and should be welcomed. The Saudi umbrage, triggered by Pakistan’s refusal in 2015 to join the Saudi war in Yemen, is also expected to subside after this.
King Salman, with the help of his son and deputy crown prince Muhammad bin Salman, spearheads an internal paradigm shift—dubbed Vision 2030—to ease Islamic strictures on the civilian population and ratchet up the regional war against Iran. In Syria, he is focused on destroying the Assad regime, Iran’s oldest ally, by funding the uprising against it even though it also benefits the Islamic State militant group seeking to replace the kingdom in Saudi Arabia with a caliphate.
As part of its anti-Iran policy, Riyadh has steadily opposed America’s change of approach under President Obama, which saw the signing of a nuclear deal that has eased many sanctions on the Middle Eastern nation. And following a mob attack on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran, pilgrims from the country are no longer permitted to travel to Saudi Arabia to perform Haj.
But while General Sharif’s new appointment will ease concerns in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan will now have to work twice as hard to allay resentment in Tehran. Last year, during a visit by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s, Pakistan allegedly raised the question—as a form of protest—of Indian intelligence penetration into Balochistan through Iran. It became a little awkward when the Pakistan military’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) department highlighted the query, forcing President Rouhani to issue a rebuttal that the matter has ever come up for discussion.
In the eyes of some Pakistani commentators, Sharif’s appointment will negatively affect Iran-Pakistan relations, an already struggling equation that had hoped to find unity through the Pak-Iran gas pipeline project. But even worse for Pakistan, it has lent new credence to rumors of a Pak-Saudi “secret nuclear deal,” cornering Islamabad into boosting efforts to lessen its regional isolation.