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ISLAMABAD: Personnel of Armed Forces march-past during full dress rehearsal of Pakistan Day parade. INP PHOTO

Pakistan is reconsidering its position on the so-called 41-nation Islamic military alliance, led by Saudi Arabia, to avoid straining its relationship with neighboring Iran, according to Pakistan media reports. The military alliance was to be commanded by General Raheel Sharif, the former commander-in-chief of Pakistan army who retired from the Pak army last year.

Its decision comes after statements by Saudi authorities at the Arab Islamic-US summit in Riyadh on 20-21 May suggested that the military alliance was meant primarily to counter Iran, the media report said adding that the Riyadh summit focused on isolating Iran — which was kept out of the summit.

The officials argued that the Pakistan government in-principle agreed to be a part of the initiative if its sole purpose was to fight terrorism. It was believed that the government had joined the alliance when in April it allowed General Sharif to leave Pakistan to lead the alliance.

But the officials said a final decision will be made once the terms of reference (ToRs) of the alliance are finalized. The ToRs would be finalized during a meeting of the defense ministers of the participating countries in Saudi Arabia soon.

Pakistan, according to the officials, would recommend that the military alliance should have a clear objective, that is to fight terrorism. Any deviation from this goal, they added, will not only undermine the alliance but lead to more divisions in the Muslim world. “We are very clear that we will join this alliance only to fight terrorism,” the officials emphasized.

Defense minister Khawaja Asif on the floor of the National Assembly has said that Pakistan would withdraw from the alliance if it turns out to be sectarian in nature.

Pakistani lawmakers have said that they do not want their country to be part of any sectarian alliance as it also goes against the country’s constitution.

Pakistan’s two main opposition parties — Tehreek-i-Insaf and Pakistan People’s Party — have been calling for maintaining “neutrality” in the Arab-Iran rivalry. But given the longstanding strategic ties with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan is unlikely to completely withdraw from the alliance.

Iran has expressed its reservations regarding the appointment of the former army chief, retired Gen Raheel Sharif, as head of the Saudi-led 41-nation so-called Islamic military alliance, saying it is not ‘satisfied’ with the coalition.

Iran expresses concern

“We are concerned about this issue… that it may impact the unity of Islamic countries,” Iran’s Ambassador to Pakistan Mehdi Honardoost was quoted as saying.

Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency quoted Honardoost as saying that Pakistan had contacted Iranian officials before issuing the no-objection certificate (NOC) to Gen Sharif to lead the Saudi alliance. “But that does not indicate that Iran is satisfied with this decision or it has accepted the same,” the envoy said.

The ambassador proposed that all important Islamic countries come together to form a “coalition of peace” in order to resolve their issues “rather [than] forming a controversial military alliance”.

A controversial appointment

The appointment of General Sharif as the leader of the military alliance sparked debate over how the move will impact Pakistan’s foreign policy, and whether it was fully sanctioned by parliament.

Pakistan had initially found itself in the crosshairs of Middle Eastern politics as Saudi Arabia named it as part of its newly formed military alliance of Muslim countries meant to combat terrorism, without first getting its consent, the daily Dawn reported.

However, after initial ambiguity, the government had confirmed its participation in the alliance, but had said that the scope of its participation would be defined after Riyadh shared the details of the coalition it was assembling.

General Sharif last March accompanied the prime minister to Raadal Shamaal, the first military exercises of the alliance in which Pakistani troops also participated.

The Saudi government had surprised

The Saudi government had surprised many countries by announcing that it had forged a coalition for coordinating and supporting military operations against terrorism in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Afghanistan. Iran was absent from the states named as participants.

Last April, Saudi Religious Affairs Minister Sheikh Saleh bin Abdul Aziz described the Pakistan-Saudi Arabia military alliance a “victory of Islam” and its main objective is “renaissance of Islam”.

Addressing a well-attended public meeting on the first day of centenary celebrations of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (F) in Pakistan , Sheikh Saleh bin Abdul Aziz said that Pakistan and Saudi Arabia would jointly take on the enemies of Islam and the holy places in Saudi Arabia.

According to Tribune Express, in order to avoid any strain with Iran, Pakistan pushed for mediation between Tehran and Riyadh. Islamabad even mooted the idea of inclusion of Iran in the alliance.

However, all those efforts could not succeed since Saudi Arabia and Iran have serious differences on regional disputes particularly the current hotspots in Middle East.

But given longstanding strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan is unlikely to completely withdraw from the alliance. Nevertheless, its participation would only remain confined to counter-terrorism efforts, the Tribune report said.

The 41-nation armed coalition was initially proposed as a platform for security cooperation among Muslim countries and included provisions for training, equipment and troops, and the involvement of religious scholars for devising a counter-terrorism narrative.

Senator Syed Dilawar Abbas

Pakistan Muslim League Quaid (PML-Q) Senior Vice President Senator Syed Dilawar Abbas has said that former army chief General Raheel Sharif should quit the Saudi-led force’s command as it will not prove useful for Pakistan in the prevailing situation.

He said that Iran is a brotherly Islamic country and above all our immediate neighbor, who always supported Pakistan in time of need. We can’t afford to let our friends get upset for the sake of others, he added. He said that the United States had always played a key role in division of Muslims for securing its own interests in the region. He also condemned US President Donald Trump’s remarks that Iran is sponsoring terrorism in the region.

Senator Abbas said that the coalition was not an Islamic army but a Saudi-led alliance. If Saudi Arabia wants to safeguard the rights of Muslim world then all should have included all Islamic states in the force. Why some countries are part of the army while highly important Muslim states, including Iran, Syria and others, have not been included in it, he questioned.

He said that it clearly indicates that Saudi Arabia had their own interests and as a nuclear Islamic State, Pakistan must clearly inform the Saudis that we cannot become part of American hidden agenda against any Muslim state. Why should we become stooges of the United States, he added.

The Nation

In a comment on the current controversy, a Pakistani newspaper the Nation, asked: Did the fact that the coalition was first announced in December 2015 – ninth months into Saudi military intervention in Yemen and a month before the execution of Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr – also not give Islamabad an idea who this alliance would be aligned against?

One would’ve been prompted to even hint that this belated suggestion of a potential back-peddling, if not complete retraction, is a reaction to the snub at the summit where Trump and King Salman collectively humiliated Pakistan by first not allowing the premier to speak and then by even refusing to include him in any publicized meetings or photo-ops.

Commenting on Pakistan’s stance that it will join this alliance “only to fight terrorism,” the Nation said that the term ‘terrorism’ is loaded, or aligned with state policies.

“A Kashmiri freedom fighter who picks up the gun is a terrorist for India. A separatist militant in Balochistan is a terrorist for Pakistan. A mujahid can be a terrorist or strategic asset depending on whether s/he is waging war against the military establishment or against it. So maybe it’s a good idea to modalities of terrorism as well, before we agree to defend Saudi Arabia against terrorists,” the paper said adding:

“A country that has unequivocally upheld that ‘atheists are terrorists’, clearly doesn’t even need an individual to take up arms for them to be lumped into the bin of terrorism. It also underscores that terrorism for the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is primarily based on ideological affiliations. And there are no prizes was guessing the one ideology that Wahabbism is antagonistic to even more than non-belief.”

Abdus Sattar Ghazali is the Chief Editor of the Journal of America (www.journalofamerica.net) email: asghazali2011 (@) gmail.com

  • K SHESHU BABU

    Pakistan has its own compulsions in opting out of Saudi led muslim military alliance . while Iran may be a reason due to its proximity to Pakistan boarder, the China factor may also contribute to pakistan decision. Saudis are US perpetual allies and China is loking to control Iran and other anti – Saudi group along with Russia. The ordinary peple may not have any impact as internal draconian laws like blasphemy, terrorist laws may continue and innocents and activists may have no let up in the repressive measures of the rulers