Peace overtures to Iran
Pakistan has welcomed recent peace overtures from Riyadh and Tehran following a round of back channel diplomacy in Baghdad. Heightened tensions in the Gulf, particularly since 2016, have been a source of anxiety for Islamabad. Pakistan has traditionally supported peace in the Gulf region as it is geographically close and important for trade and energy needs. Equally important, if not more, are the spiritual and historic ties that link Pakistan to both sides of the Gulf. Government to government relations and people to people contacts with these countries have traditionally been robust.
No wonder that Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s recent peace overture to Iran was received like a whiff of fresh air in Pakistan. He said Saudi Arabia desired ‘friendly and special relations’ with Iran as a neighbor. However, the Crown Prince was also quick in pointing out the factors that had vitiated relations and described those as ‘negative behavior.’ He spelt out Iranian nuclear and missile programs in addition to its policy of aiding and abetting regional proxies. It is heartening for Pakistan that the response from Tehran was not negative. Reeling under sanctions, Iran can ill afford adventures.
“We want Iran to help push the Middle East toward prosperity,” was the message from Riyadh, clear and succinct. The Kingdom, through this peace overture, has risen above its own interests and has spoken for the good of the entire region. The rivalry has not helped the region, certainly not the common man, whether in Iran or the Gulf countries. On the contrary, it has created space for foreign players to fish in muddied Gulf waters.
In its unrealistic regional goals, Iran has only hurt its own people through worsening economic conditions. The olive branch waved from Riyadh will benefit Iran the most. The Iranian population is far more than that of all GCC member states and its oil exports are limited due to international sanctions.
While the GCC countries have weathered the storm created by COVID-19 and a dip in oil revenues rather well, Iran is passing through a very difficult economic phase, compounded by sanctions. According to the World Bank forecast, its fiscal deficit will cross 6 percent of GDP this year. Total public debt has already crossed 50 percent of GDP. Due to an annual inflation rate of over 20 percent, the Iranian Riyal has lost much of its value against foreign currencies. Plans to reduce poverty have taken a big hit. So, when the Saudi Crown Prince spelt out the link between peace in the Gulf and prosperity in the Middle East, it was evident that Iran itself would benefit from the peace dividend the most.
Iran has been a prisoner of its own rhetoric since 1979. Its vow to export revolution led to interference in the internal affairs of regional countries. The situation was exacerbated by its intervention in the Syria and Yemen wars. Both these conflagrations have been catastrophic. In its unrealistic regional goals, Iran has only hurt its own people through worsening economic conditions. The olive branch waved from Riyadh will benefit Iran the most. The Iranian population is far more than that of all GCC member states and its oil exports are limited due to international sanctions.
The entire region needs respite from perpetual conflict. The demographic youth bulge, seen all over the Middle East, demands more jobs and better living conditions. Wars in Syria and Yemen have hurt the Iranian economy and the deadlocks are dragging. The Iranian people deserve respite from the current economic slump followed by a prolonged period of sustained economic development. They have become innocent victims of the exaggerated ambitions of their leaders.
A cursory look at the Iranian response may be worth its while. An official spokesperson welcomed the “change of tone from Saudi Arabia.” He hoped that the two countries could work together to secure peace.” “With constructive views and dialogue-oriented approach, Iran and Saudi Arabia can enter a new chapter of interaction and co-operation to achieve peace, stability and regional development by overcoming differences,” he said.
It is good to note that both sides place emphasis on the link between peace and economic development.
Some observers in the western media have been surprised by this development. They thought this divide was permanent. But they should have known that before 1979, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Iran had enjoyed friendly relations. Iran was progressing at a fast pace then. The ‘79 revolution put brakes on that progress. And then Iran fought a long futile war which took its toll on human life and resources. The Iranian people deserve a break from that perpetual cycle of violence in the region.
More importantly, an Iran-Saudi Arabia reconciliation would auger well for the entire region as it limits the space for foreign military presence. With lowered temperatures in the Gulf, an era of peace and prosperity will begin. Even though it will take more effort, the goal is worth its while. The credit for initiating peace overtures goes to the Crown Prince.
- Javed Hafeez is a former Pakistani diplomat with much experience of the Middle East. He writes weekly columns in Pakistani and Gulf newspapers and appears regularly on satellite TV channels as a defense and political analyst.