Amid growing Saudi concerns about the shifting Middle East balance of power in favor of Iran, Pakistan is moving carefully between Riyadh and Tehran.
Not long ago the Pakistan army chief, General Raheel Sharif was invited to attend the largest military exercises ever conducted by Saudi Arabia.
A few days later, Pakistan Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, anounced a visit to Tehran to reassure Iran that Islamabad would not act as Saudi Arabia’s proxy in the Syrian civil war.
Saudi Arabia, meantime, has reportedly pressed the Pakistan Army to train Sunni volunteers to fight against the Shia Syrian regime dangling the carrot of a $1.5 billion return.
The House of Saud had never been comfortable with Asif Ali Zardari, who held the reins in Pakistan prior to the re-emergence of Sharif. Zardari was suspected of being soft on Iran.
That he had personally gone to Iran to inaugurate the construction of a long delayed gas pipeline project from Iran to Pakistan just before his removal from office as Pakistan’s President, had further raised Saudi hackles.
They are apparently much more comfortable with Sharif whom they had come to know after his exile to Saudi Arabia by former military dictator General Pervez Musharraf.
Sure enough, soon after he had been re-elected Prime Minister Sharif indicated that Pakistan was no longer interested in the gas pipeline project.
But Sharif has since moved away from this position and announced that Islamabad would not abandon the pipeline project andagreed with Iran to run joint operations against “terrorists, smugglers and drug-traffickers”
Pakistani diplomats have also attended the three-day Middle East Envoys Conference to “streamline relations” between 12 regional states, which include Iran.
What will eventually pan out is moot, but for the moment aid-dependent Pakistan is playing its cards close to its chest on the Saudi-Iran rivalry.