Saudi Arabian concerns over Pakistan’s improving ties with Iran will likely be worsened by reports that Islamabad sent a secret delegation of hard-nosed and devout Sunni scholars to Tehran with the aim of fostering interfaith harmony with their Shi’ite counterparts.
Asia Times Online has learned that more than a dozen Wahhabis (hardline Sunni Muslims) from Pakistan were recently sent to Iran to meet with Shi’ite clerics, the majority faith in Iran. Pakistan, like Saudi Arabia, is predominantly Sunni. Efforts to keep the religious dialogue secret were exerted at the government level.
The meeting occurred weeks before a high-profile delegation, including President Asif Ali Zardari, visited Tehran for an anti-terrorism summit, suggesting that Pakistan-Iran ties were rapidly improving. (See Pakistan, Iran become ‘natural allies’, Jul 19, 2011)
Speaking in Tehran on July 17, Zardari proposed a currency-swap agreement between Pakistan and Iran to strengthen trade and said the nations had the potential to undertake joint economic projects in Afghanistan. He said there was a chance of a “new era” of development in the two countries in particular, and in the whole region.
There are also plans for a gas pipeline that would link Iran’s South Pars gas field to energy-staved Pakistan. Federal Minister for Petroleum and Natural Resources Dr Asim Hussain said last week that the $1.2 billion pipeline project will be complete by 2014.
High-placed sources say the main objective of the religious delegation sent to Iran was to illustrate to Sunni and Shi’ite sects that “non-Muslim actors” are responsible for sectarian tensions between the two schools of thought in recent years.
Maulana Aamir Siddique, new custodian of the Red Mosque (Lal Masjid) in Islamabad, one of the young religious scholars who attended the confidential visit to Iran, told Asia Times Online, “The main objective of the delegation was to unite Muslim nations and narrow the differences among Muslim communities.”
Siddique’s mosque has been seen as a hotbed of Sunni radicalism. It was stormed by security forces in 2007 for providing a safe haven to militants under the protection of two brothers who were its then custodians, Maulana Abdul Aziz and Maulana Abdul Rasheed Ghazi. Ghazi was killed along with 153 others in the offensive. Abdul Aziz was arrested while trying to escape disguised as a female student. Ghazi was Siddique’s nephew.
Saudi reaction to the recent blossoming of Iran-Pakistan relations has been swift, with King Abdullah inviting Zardari to Saudi Arabia last week, purportedly to discuss bilateral ties and the fight against militancy.
However, during the meeting Zardari was reminded about the longstanding political and religious ties between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. According to reliable sources, King Abdullah also emphasized to Zardari the important assistance Saudi Arabian has provided Pakistan in difficult times.
While Pakistan has benefited from such aid, Saudi funds have also fueled bloody sectarian violence between Shi’ites and Sunnis. The majority of jihadi organizations and all anti-Shi’ite elements have all received heavy funding from Saudi sources, particularly in the 1990s, when scores of innocent Shi’ites were executed by the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan.
With 90% of the Pakistani populace comprised of Sunni Muslims, Pakistan has been under Saudi influence for decades, with Saudis wielding power over internal, political and religious matters. If Islamabad takes its embrace of Iran too far, it will face face increasing pressure from Riyadh.