THE world was apparently 10 minutes away from witnessing a war launched on Iran when President Donald Trump reportedly decided to heed the advice of his favourite Fox News television host among others to stop the strike. There may have been some other reasons too for the maverick leader to pull back, though it was certainly not out of a humanitarian concern for the potential loss of lives as he claims.
Trump’s threat of obliterating Iran may be exaggerated but the danger of tensions spiralling out of control cannot be minimised. A war cloud still hangs over the Gulf. The massive US show of military strength in the region and a new round of sanctions against Iran are ominous signs. The conflagration will not be limited and could sweep across an extremely volatile region.
Trump’s war cry has thrown geopolitics into a tizzy. A new American war in the Middle East would be much more disastrous than even the Iraq invasion. It would certainly pull other major powers into the fray. And it would be a huge, costly gamble for the Trump administration. Trump may have pulled back from attacking Iran at the last moment. But no one knows what happens next giving his unpredictable behaviour. There has not been any softening of tone.
Any military adventure against Iran would further alienate Washington from its Western allies who are already upset with the Trump administration over its position on the Iranian nuclear agreement. The Europeans blame Trump for pushing Iran towards jettisoning an agreement that was working, as do China and Russia.
Getting involved in the Iran-US conflict in any way will be disastrous for Pakistan.
The conflict will also cause the ongoing proxy war to intensify between Saudi Arabia and Iran. That may lead to a new civil war in the Middle East. With Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries aligning themselves with the United States against Iran, the situation has become extremely intricate. The Saudi push in Trump’s anti-Iran campaign is all too obvious.
Saudis officials never mince their words where it comes to Iran, labelling the country as ‘the most dangerous adversary’. Their anti-Iran campaign has brought Saudi Arabia and Israel much closer. Both countries had welcomed Trump’s decision to unilaterally annul the nuclear deal with Iran. In Trump, they have found a perfect ally.
The situation has serious implications for Pakistan. Notwithstanding our delicate balancing act, it will be hard for us to escape the fire next door. It is never easy to navigate the labyrinth of the Middle East’s ever-changing politics and alignments but it is becoming even more challenging for Pakistan with the prospect of a chronic Saudi-Iran proxy war heating up.
A major challenge for Pakistan will be to take a firm position against any American aggression targeting Iran while maintaining its neutrality in the Saudi-Iran power struggle in the Middle East. It will certainly be a tightrope walk. We have been in a similar situation in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war, and more recently, in the Yemen civil war.
Yet the situation this time round is more complex, given Pakistan’s increasing reliance on Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries for financial support. Besides, Pakistan is also a part of the Saudi-led so-called Islamic alliance force. Although it is supposed to be a counterterrorism force, it is largely perceived as a Sunni alliance against Iran. Getting involved in the conflict in any way will be disastrous for Pakistan.
While the conflict has been building up for long, particularly after Trump’s pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, the attacks on oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz and the downing of an American drone by Iranian security forces has brought the stand-off to a head.
In an attempt to bring the Iranians under pressure, the Trump administration earlier this year reimposed some of the sanctions that had been withdrawn after the 2015 nuclear deal. In an unprecedented move, Washington has also declared the Iranian elite forces known as Pasdaran a terrorist group.
It is perhaps for the first time that the security force of any country has been so sanctioned. The latest travel sanction against top Iranian leaders and military commanders may not affect them much, but the move is meant to further tighten the screws. All those punitive actions have failed to force Tehran to come to the negotiating table and agree to Trump’s conditions. A defiant Iranian government has announced it will revisit its commitments under the nuclear deal to put on hold its uranium-enrichment process.
Meanwhile, recent rocket attacks by Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi forces against Saudi Arabia have added to the tension. The Saudis are already deeply involved in the destructive civil war that has taken a massive human toll. The Yemen crisis has provided Saudi Arabia an opportunity to consolidate an anti-Iran coalition. The overreaction of the Arab countries to the Yemen crisis seems to have been triggered by that perceived Iranian threat.
It is not that the Iranians are not disconnected from the Houthi revolt, but Tehran is certainly not the instigator. The cause of the Yemen crisis is rooted in its internal political and tribal divides and history. However, some statements emanating from Tehran have reinforced concerns about Iran’s own power game in the region. The Saudis are militarily involved in the Yemen civil war.
Interestingly, Israel has tacitly supported the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen. Both countries seem unified in their view of Iran’s involvement in the Yemen unrest as ‘a strategic move to dominate the region’.
The US escalation against Iran may also have implications for the ongoing Afghan peace negotiations. Iran has a huge stake in Afghanistan and its support is extremely important for any peace agreement to succeed. American officials have long been accusing Tehran of providing logistic support to the insurgents.
Trying to understand this multitude of paradoxes is like attempting to find one’s way out of a maze where most turns lead to a dead end. This new battle in the Middle East is likely to be an ugly and violent one.
The writer is an author and a journalist.
Published in Dawn, June 26th, 2019