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Choice to fight IS or Shi'a domination by Iran?

THE prime minister’s visit to Saudi Arabia has sparked a mini-firestorm of speculation about the ‘real’ motives for the trip. Yet Nawaz Sharif is just one of many regional and international leaders invited to Riyadh over the past few days.

The Turkish and Egyptian presidents were recently in the kingdom, while John Kerry also made a quick dash to Riyadh. It seems two main issues were commonly discussed during these visits: Iran and the self-styled Islamic State. There has been talk of forming a ‘Sunni bloc’ as Tehran has started to exercise greater influence across the region and a possible nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 emerges on the horizon, which would pave the way for the Islamic Republic’s re-entry into the global financial system. Indeed in both Syria and Iraq, Iran is helping these governments push back against IS. This puts the Arab sheikhdoms in a tough spot: should they still try and contain Iran, or should they focus on defeating IS?

IS, on the other hand, is projecting itself as a champion of the ‘Sunni’ cause, putting up a fight against an expansionist, Shia Iran. Here, the difficulty of the Gulf sheikhdoms becomes apparent: if they take a position against IS they’ll be on the same side as Iran. If they support the Islamic State — overtly or covertly — it will effectively be suicidal. For while IS may come in handy to encircle Iran, it is quite clear the self-styled caliphate seeks to dismantle the current political architecture of the Middle East and remake the region, and indeed the entire Muslim world, in its image. That is why it is important for Sunni-majority states, especially the Gulf sheikhdoms, to firmly oppose IS, and despite their doctrinal and ideological differences with Iran, bury the hatchet and work with Tehran against IS. Moreover, if the Sunni states remain ambiguous about their anti-IS policy, Islamists the world over will gravitate towards the extremist group as it continues to play up its anti-Iran and anti-Shia credentials.

And where does Pakistan fit into this equation? It is indeed a difficult challenge for Islamabad to balance its ties with Riyadh and Tehran. But within this difficulty may be an opportunity. Firstly, Pakistan should not become a party in the Arab-Iran tussle. Iran is a neighbour and should not be estranged while decades of ties with Saudi Arabia must also not be severed. If anything, Pakistan is ideally placed to act as a bridge between the two — should it play its cards right. Coming back to IS, the Iranian action against the group must not be viewed through a sectarian lens, especially when Saudi Arabia and other countries have declared it a terrorist organisation. Ideally, collective action against IS is the best option; for this Iran and Saudi Arabia will need to set aside their differences and focus on the common enemy.
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