Pakistan has become the latest neighbour of Iran to draw fire from the clerics in Tehran after it allowed a former army chief to hold a leadership role in the Saudi Arabia-led counter-terrorism alliance against Islamic State (IS).
Islamabad voiced no objection to the appointment of General (retd) Raheel Sharif, the former chief of army staff who retired in November 2016, to lead the Islamic Military Alliance from its headquarters in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Sharif will be the Alliance’s first commander-in-chief.
Iran, which is not part of the 41-state coalition, voiced its concerns over the appointment. On Monday, the IRNA news agency quoted Iran’s ambassador in Islamabad, Mehdi Honardoost, as saying that the Islamic Republic had reservations over the issuance of a no-objection certificate by the government to Sharif. Honardoost had earlier visited the Army’s General Headquarters to seek assurances that the appointment would not affect the relationship between the two countries.
Nevertheless, this spat marks signs of a deterioration in bilateral ties. Iran has been put in an unusual position; with most of its neighbours, Tehran is either able to dictate terms to pliable friendly governments, like in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, or is actively trying to destabilise the incumbent regime and promote unrest, like in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
Pakistan is one of the few countries with which Iran has ‘ordinary’ diplomatic relations and operates as an equal. And the clerics don’t know what to do.
Pakistan’s commitment, as with all those contributing to the Islamic Military Alliance, is to fight terrorism. In some areas, this coincides with Tehran’s own foreign policy goals. Both the Alliance and Iran, for example, are committed to fighting Islamic State in Syria, and to halting the atrocities carried out by the extremist group.
The difference comes when the cross-hairs are turned on terrorist groups waging their campaign in countries Iran considers opponents. The Alliance, Pakistan included, will for instance also target Yemen, long a hotbed of terrorist activity, where the Houthi rebels have deposed the legitimate government and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) now operates freely.
However, Iran’s policy is to support the Houthi rebels and ignore the ravages of AQAP. Why? Because the presence of terrorists in Yemen has sucked its greatest regional rival – Saudi Arabia – into a costly, stubborn war. Instead of subscribing to the view of almost every section of the international community – that terrorism should be fought wherever it is found – Iran turns a blind eye.
This does not just happen in Yemen. In Bahrain, there is mounting evidence that Iran has provided weapons, funds and training to militants trying to fight the government. Saudi Arabia has had to clamp down on the restive, Shia-dominated Eastern Province, where oppositionists have long enjoyed the clerics’ support. Iran has consistently meddled in Afghanistan, keeping the state in a constant state of turmoil. The terrorist group Hezbollah has taken control of the Lebanese state machinery and now operates as an ally of the Islamic Republic on the international stage.
Most shockingly, Iran has long given shelter to senior members of Al Qaeda and has allowed extremists linked to the group to cross its territory freely, providing a land link between fundamentalist groups in Afghanistan and Iraq.
For these reasons, Iran is widely acknowledged as the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism. There should be little wonder it objects to Pakistan’s eagerness to contribute to the counter-terrorism efforts of the Islamic Military Alliance.