Sanity demands neutrality

16 Feb 2019


The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

WHILE the security state is geared up to guard against what it perceives as an array of ‘fifth columnists’ whether in media or politics or among the ranks of rights activists, one hopes the guardians are not dropping their guard where far more dangerous external machinations in the region are concerned.

Earlier this week, the suicide bombing of an Iranian Revolutionary Guards vehicle near Zahedan, not far from the Pakistan border in Iranian Sistan-Baluchestan, killed 27 paramilitary soldiers. The attack was claimed by Jaish al-Adl, a successor of the terror group Jundallah. Tehran condemned the attack and pledged to find the perpetrators and retaliate against them even beyond the country’s borders.

The Guardian reported that the bombing took place on the day that a conference convened by the US in Warsaw was to include discussions on what Washington says is “Iran’s malign influence across the wider Middle East”. It also came two days after Iran marked the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution and four decades of tense relations with the West.

On more occasions than one, Prime Minister Imran Khan has been unambiguous in saying that Pakistan will not take sides in any Saudi-Iran tension.

In recent months, a number of attacks have been mounted against both military and non-military targets in Iran. Most have been claimed by Sunni militant groups battling the Iranian regime. These include the kidnapping of Iranian border guards from the Pakistan border whose release Islamabad helped secure.

The rising trend of attacks is also being attributed to the change in the US policy towards Iran ever since the current White House incumbent unilaterally scrapped a carefully crafted nuclear deal which sought to address concerns regarding Teh­ran’s nuclear ambitions and curtail its programme.

US President Donald Trump’s point man on Iran National Security Adviser John Bolton has been breathing fire every time he talks of the Middle East and it is clear that unlike the restraining hand of the US on Israel in the past, Washington’s current Tehran policy visualises a different scenario. Benjamin Nethanyahu’s views are not a secret either.

This situation places huge challenges on the civil-military leadership of Pakistan as it will have to steer a clear path away from trouble, while also not rubbing up the wrong way its old allies, and generous current funders, Saudi Arabia and UAE, both of whom are close to the US-Israeli position on the matter.

On more occasions than one, Prime Minister Imran Khan has been absolutely unambiguous in saying that Pakistan will not take sides in any Saudi-Iran tension and, if at all, it has a role to play that would be mediatory in nature.

One has no reason to believe the prime minister would have any reason to change his mind. It is safe to assume that the military leadership is on the same page as any other position could have catastrophic consequences.

This understanding of the Pakistani view can only be seen as positive because existence in a region which more often than not resembles a tinderbox is fraught with perils and there can never be a justification for taking on more.

To underline the point, here is a report my journalist friend Zarrar Khuhro found for me. It was published on Jan 13, 2012, in the oldest and well-informed Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

“Israeli Mossad agents posed as CIA officers in order to recruit members of a Pakistan-based terror group to carry out assassinations and attacks against the regime in Iran, Foreign Policy revealed on Friday, quoting US intelligence memos.

“Foreign Policy’s Mark Perry reported that the Mossad operation was carried out in 2007-2008, behind the back of the US government, and infuriated then US President George W. Bush.

“Perry quotes a number of American intelligence officials and claims that the Mossad agents used American dollars and US passports to pose as CIA spies to try to recruit members of Jundallah, a Pakistan-based Sunni extremist organisation that has carried out a series of attacks in Iran and assassinations of government officials.

“According to the report, Israel’s recruitment attempts took place mostly in London, right under the nose of US intelligence officials.

“‘It’s amazing what the Israelis thought they could get away with,’ Foreign Policy quoted an intelligence officer as saying. ‘Their recruitment activities were nearly in the open. They apparently didn’t give a damn what we thought.’”

“According to a currently serving US intelligence officer, Perry reports, when Bush was briefed on the information he ‘went absolutely ballistic.’” But the report also conceded that there was little the US could do. And, in effect, did nothing.

This happened at a time when the US may not have been geared up for regime change or disposed to even ‘cutting to size’ Iran. Look at all the rhetoric coming out of Washington today. It isn’t difficult to understand the kind of mood and environment that exists as we speak.

This places a huge burden on Pakistan’s shoulders. It will have to chart an independent course and ensure that as possibilities, no matter how remote, are now emerging of a possible peace deal in Afghanistan, some foreign powers’ desire to play games in Iran does not destabilise us again.

This is easier said than done, but not impossible. Our policy needs to be informed by the huge price we have paid in blood for not pondering over the repercussions of some of our decisions in the past and making sure that we are not repeating our follies.

I do think that the prime minister’s desire for neutrality is a viable one as our relations with one important Muslim state in the region should not be at the cost of another equally significant Muslim nation. Our intel will need to up its game and the prime minister will need to stay the course.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, February 16th, 2019