• Foreign minister assures parliament country won’t become part of regional row
• Says Mahathir not annoyed with Pakistan
• Announces Erdogan due in Islamabad next month

ISLAMABAD: Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi has urged the parties to the simmering Middle East crisis to exercise restraint, declaring that Pakistan will not become part of any regional conflict.

Addressing both houses of parliament on Monday separately, the foreign minister described the Middle East situation as fragile, fluid and critical that could assume any shape. Explaining reasons for Pakistan’s concerns, he said any actions affecting regional peace would not be in the interest of Pakistan. He said if the situation deteriorated, it would shift the country’s focus from its economic development.

Mr Qureshi said experts believed that the repercussions of the US strike that killed Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani could be more severe than those of the killing of the chiefs of militant outfits, Al Qaeda and ISIS. He warned that use of force could take the things to a point of no return.

Observing that the region could not afford a new war, Pakistan’s foreign minister asked Iran to demonstrate traditional wisdom and refrain from any escalatory measures in the larger interest of the region.

He also asked the international community and the United Nations to play their role in de-escalation. A heightened tension would further destabilise the region, he said.

The FM warned that the situation in Yemen could get out of hand and attacks by the Houthis on Saudi Arabia could increase. Hezbollah, which has in the past conducted rocket attacks, could go ahead and strike Israel. The situation could lead to high-profile assassinations of US personnel in the region, he added.

He said the situation could lead to blockage of oil supply routes, having a direct impact on regional and global economies.

He said the Iran nuclear deal had come under severe pressure with the latest announcements coming out of Iran suggesting that Tehran had virtually backed out of the deal that put restrictions on the country’s uranium enrichment levels.

The crisis could also have a negative impact on Afghanistan peace process and Islamabad’s efforts to that effect, he said, adding that it could lead to terrorism rearing its head again in Pakistan.

The developments raised the possibilities of further divisions within the ranks of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), he added. The situation also impacted Pakistani government’s efforts to unite the forum of OIC on human rights violations in India-occupied Kashmir. He said India facing protests in different states over a controversial law could use the opportunity to divert attention from its internal problems by trying to destabilise Pakistan and carry out a false-flag operation.

The minister began his speech by recounting how the crisis-like situation unfolded. He said Iraq decided to send its foreign minister to the United Nations to record protest, because in their view the US strike violated international law and UN charter.

He recalled that the Iranian supreme leader promised revenge of General Soleimani’s killing while Iranian President Hassan Rouhani termed this strike “international terrorism”. Iran’s foreign minister considered this act as dramatically escalating the regional situation.

Mr Qureshi said the Pakistani government presented its stance on the development on Jan 3. “I decided to contact the important foreign ministers of the region. Yesterday, I talked in detail with the Iranian foreign minister and presented Pakistan’s stance on the incident and gained information from him,” he said, adding that he also spoke with the foreign ministers of the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

He said the Pentagon had acknowledged that the strike had been carried out on the direction of US President Donald Trump. The US State Department claimed it was primarily a preemptive action stating that Washington had reports suggesting that Soleimani was planning to attack US soldiers and diplomats.

“The White House stated that it was a ‘decisive defensive action’. [...]These tensions have not arisen overnight but the situation has been intensifying over a period of time,” the foreign minister said, adding that this specific act by the US had aggravated the situation in the region.

He noted the US claims that their action was “preventive” in nature and it was not meant to ignite a war. “Now they say they are ready to deescalate” the situation, he said, but at the same time they (Washington) “they have warned that if Iran retaliates, our response will be even stronger than before.”

“We are constantly monitoring and assessing the situation,” Mr Qureshi said, adding that a task force had been set up in the Foreign Office (FO) to keep an eye on the evolving situation on a day-to-day basis and apprise the government and present its recommendations on the issue.

He also shared details with the lawmakers about his telephonic conversations with the foreign ministers of Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. He said Pakistan would continue its diplomatic outreach to defuse tension.

In his speech during the National Assembly session, the foreign minister said Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was not annoyed with Pakistan for staying away from Kuala Lumpur summit.

“He has no problems. You see his tweets and messages,” he remarked.

FM Qureshi also announced that Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan would be visiting Pakistan next month with a big delegation.

Published in Dawn, January 7th, 2020