ISLAMABAD: United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday reached out to Army Chief Gen Qamar Bajwa in the aftermath of assassination of commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Gen Qassem Soleimani, vowing to remain firm against Iran.

The conversation, which was part of the secretary’s telephonic contacts with leaders around the world, was disclosed by Mr Pompeo on Twitter hours after the Foreign Office expressed “concern” about peace and stability in the Middle East.

Secretary Pompeo tweeted: “Pakistan’s Chief of [Army] Staff General Bajwa and I spoke today about US defensive action to kill Qassem Soleimani. The Iran regime’s actions in the region are destabilising and our resolve in protecting American interests, personnel, facilities, and partners will not waver.”

The Inter-Services Public Relations later said the discussion was about the possible implications of recent escalation in the Middle East. Gen Bajwa, it said, called for “maximum restraint and constructive engagement” for peace and stability. He expressed the hope that the new situation would not take the focus away from the Afghan peace process.

US secretary of state reaches out to army chief in aftermath of Soleimani’s assassination

Gen Soleimani, who was responsible for Iran’s overseas military operations and considered by many as the second most influential person in Iran, was assassinated along with an Iraqi commander, Abu-Mahdi al-Muhandis, in a US drone attack in wee hours of Friday as the two left Baghdad airport.

The attack was, according to the US Department of Defence, ordered by President Donald Trump. It is feared that the US action could escalate tensions in the region, especially if Iran were to retaliate aggressively.

Analysts believe that Mr Pompeo, besides explaining and defending the US action, could have sought protection for US interests in Pakistan.

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei has vowed to avenge the killing of his top commander.

In his message, he said that “severe revenge awaits the criminals who have stained their hands with his & the other martyrs’ blood last night. Martyr Soleimani is an international figure of resistance and all such people will seek revenge”. The message suggested that the response could be asymmetric.

It should be recalled that Pakistan had quite recently tried to mediate between Tehran and Washington on President Trump’s request.

Prime Minister Imran Khan had at a conference in Islamabad in November said he “tried his bit” after President Trump asked him to facilitate dialogue with the Iranian leadership. “Hope it works out,” he had then wished.

The Foreign Office in its statement worried about instability in the Middle East. “Pakistan has viewed with deep concern the recent developments in the Middle East, which seriously threaten peace and stability in the region,” said the mildly worded statement that did not even clearly state which particular incident it was referring to.

However, since the statement came on the day Gen Soleimani and commander al-Muhandis were assassinated, it was understood to have been issued in that context.

The statement, much like the reactions from Beijing and Ankara, urged “all parties” to exercise maximum restraint and engage constructively to de-escalate the situation. It emphasised resolution of disputes through diplomatic means, in accordance with the UN Charter and international law.

Minister for Human Rights Dr Shireen Mazari was, however, more specific about the incident and its possible repercussions. She tweeted: “Killing of General Soleimani by US has in an instant upped the military ante in the region as Iran has declared it an act of war. It is in no one’s interest to have a war in an already volatile region.”

Urging UN Secretary General António Guterres to defuse the situation, she said: “Brinkmanship is a dangerous strategy for all.”

The FO statement, in a somewhat encrypted manner, reiterated Pakistan’s stance on drone attacks. “Respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity are the fundamental principles of the UN Charter, which should be adhered to. It is also important to avoid unilateral actions and use of force,” it maintained.

Published in Dawn, January 4th, 2020