ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met Pakistan’s powerful military chief Thursday, as the Pakistan government wrestled with a dilemma over how to respond to a request from Saudi Arabia for Pakistani troops to fight in Yemen.
Zarif was winding up a two-day trip during which he was expected to urge Pakistan to reject the Saudi request for troops, planes and naval support for a Saudi-led coalition against Iran-allied Houthi fighters in Yemen.
Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif has publicly remained silent on the request. Army officials say they will defer to the civilian government.
Saudi Arabia’s request puts Pakistan in a tight spot. The nuclear-armed nation of 180 million people has strong economic, religious and military ties to Saudi Arabia but also a long and porous border with Iran in a mineral-rich region plagued by a separatist insurgency.
Shi’ite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia are rivals for power in the volatile Middle East and many in Sunni-majority Pakistan fear being caught between them if Pakistani troops are sent to Yemen.
A military statement on the meeting between Zarif and Sharif emphasized border difficulties and possible defense cooperation.
“Focus of the discussion remained on regional security including the evolving situation in the Middle East, Pak-Iran border management and defense and security cooperation between both the countries,” it said.
“The unity and integrity of Muslim Ummah (community) and greater harmony amongst the Muslims was emphasized.”
A Saudi-led coalition began air strikes against Iran-backed Houthi forces in Yemen last month. Iran denies Saudi and U.S. accusations that it has armed the Houthis, who hail from the Zaidi branch of Shi’ite Islam.
Although the causes of the Yemen conflict are complex, analysts fear it could spark a bloody sectarian battle between proxies of Iran and Saudi Arabia that could inflame the Middle East.
Pakistan’s parliament has been debating the Saudi request to join the coalition this week. Legislators emphasized brotherly ties with Saudi Arabia but no one spoke in favor of going into Yemen.
“The consensus that is emerging in parliament is that Pakistan should not participate in any military offensive. We should try to mediate, influence and facilitate peaceful dialogue,” Sartaj Aziz, the prime minister’s adviser on security and foreign affairs, said on Wednesday.
Zarif has recommended the international community impose a ceasefire, send humanitarian aid, support a dialogue among Yemenis and back the formation of a broad-based government.
Reporting by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Nick Macfie and Simon Cameron-Moore