Tehran and Riyadh host Imran Khan to discuss deescalation

In an unprecedented turn of events, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan visited both Tehran and Riyadh to facilitate talks between the two regional arch-rivals.

After years of hostility and competition for influence in the region, both Tehran and Riyadh have hinted at indirect talks to reduce tensions. The thaw in icy-cold relations came after top officials from Pakistan and Iraq said the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman had asked the leaders of the two countries to speak to Iran on the possibilities of de-escalation.

Khan was in Tehran on the weekend to meet the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei. Afterwards, on Tuesday, he met with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) to deliver a message from Iran.

Rouhani, in a joint press conference with Khan, said that Iran is ready to sit on the negotiating table but added that “the key to regional issues is ending the war in Yemen, immediate cease-fire and helping the Yemenis, which can be a good start.” He went on to add that, “any kind of goodwill and good speech will be responded with good, suitable speech.”

Speaking at the conference, Khan also said that Islamabad will take every effort to ensure peace in the region and deescalate the situation. Pakistan is wary of a potential conflict between Riyadh and Tehran and has long sought to solve the differences between the two rivals to avoid another war at its doorstep.

Khan also invited both sides to Islamabad, which he said can be used as a neutral venue to iron out differences.

Iran and Pakistan share a 560-mile border and have had amicable relations in the past, but Saudi Arabia has been Islamabad’s key ally in the region. By mediating between the two neighbors, Pakistan seeks to maintain its neutrality in the ongoing regional tussle.

“Iran has always been a friendly neighbour to Pakistan and supported us in hard times,” Khan said in Tehran.

On the other hand, the statements following his meeting with the MBS avoided any mention of Iran. The comments made on the regional issues were kept purposefully vague and emphasised upon the “strong ties between the two brotherly countries,” while adding that the two sides “also discussed the latest developments in the region.”

Iran and Saudi Arabia — apart from the proxy wars in countries from Lebanon to Yemen — have allegedly attacked each other’s oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, the Red and Arabian Sea. The insecurity along the shipping routes poses massive risks to global crude supply chain, as more than 21 million barrels per day of oil travels through the narrow chokepoint of Hormuz.

On Friday, an oil tanker owned by the National Iranian Oil Company was hit by two missiles in the Red Sea. Iranian Foreign Minister said the attack was sophisticated, state-sponsored and was carried out by “one or more governments.”

On the other hand, on Sept 14, a small army of drones attacked the state-owned Aramco oil processing facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais located along the eastern border of the Saudi peninsula cutting the global oil supply by almost five per cent. Although, the attacks were claimed by Yemen’s Houthi rebels, the US and Saudi Arabia both blamed Iran for the attacks citing intelligence reports.

Saudi Arabia and Iran are fighting proxy wars in the Middle East. However, Yemen, where Iranian-backed militia is head-to-head with the Saudi-led coalition since 2015, has become a battleground for both nations to one-up each other.

However, Khan, following the meetings, acknowledged that both sides have shown their willingness to settle mutual disputes through diplomacy and negotiations.

But for Tehran and Riyadh to peacefully co-exist in the region, they will have to make compromises.