NOTHING is more dangerous for world peace than a bully in the White House. President Donald Trump’s bellicosity has pushed the Middle East to the brink of another war. Although acrimony between Washington and Tehran had been building up for quite some time, the killing of a top Iranian general in a US drone strike has thrown regional geopolitics into a whirl.
Iran has vowed to strike back though it is not clear how and where. It may not directly get into a military confrontation with the United States but it certainly has the capacity to target American military installations in the region through its powerful proxies. Contrary to Trump’s claim, his action has made the region less safe.
The brewing conflict has already taken on a wider regional dimension with Iraq calling for the withdrawal of American troops from its territory. The US rocket attack that killed Maj-Gen Qassem Soleimani and several Iraqi officials occurred on Iraqi soil. The incident has further fuelled anti-American sentiments there. Not surprisingly, thousands of Iraqis attended the funeral procession in Baghdad.
Meanwhile, Lebanon’s pro-Iranian militia Hezbollah has threatened to target US military interests in the region. The escalation is also causing concern in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries despite their anti-Iran position. They have adopted a very cautious stand, calling for restraint by both sides. Further escalation could suck them into the conflagration. The presence of American forces in these countries has made them more vulnerable. As tensions mount, the US has reinforced its troop deployment in Kuwait and other Gulf countries.
Condemning aggression does not mean taking sides. In fact, docility raises questions about our independence.
Trump’s threat to destroy cultural heritage, which includes religious places in Iran, gives a more ominous twist to the crisis. Any such action will constitute a war crime according to several international laws that the US has both sponsored and signed. It may just be a threat but given his irrational behaviour anything is possible when it comes to the US president. The backlash in the Muslim world against any American attack on religious sites would be uncontrollable.
Since taking over the US presidency, Trump has been increasing pressure on Iran. He unilaterally withdrew America from the 2015 nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions on Iran. In retaliation to the recent assassination, Tehran has revived its suspended nuclear weapons programme. Predictably, the latest American action has unified the Iranians. Even those who had been protesting against the Iranian government are now united in their grief for the slain general. One American columnist described the mammoth mourning processions in Iran and other countries as “the start of Iranian retaliation”.
Obviously, the escalation in the Middle East will give militant groups such as the so-called Islamic State a new lease of life. Although the group has been eliminated from most of the territories it once controlled, it remains a potent force in some areas. Interestingly, Iran and the US had cooperated in fighting the IS in Iraq.
Gen Soleimani had played a key role in the military campaign against the IS. He had led Iranian military personnel that fought alongside the Iraqi forces. It has never been easy to navigate the labyrinth of the Middle East’s ever-changing politics, but it is becoming even more challenging with the latest escalation. The alignment of forces has often produced strange bedfellows, underscoring the complexity of the Middle East political maze.
One of the strongest condemnations of the death of the Iranian general has come from Afghan leaders. It shows Iran’s formidable influence in Afghanistan. Worsening relations with Tehran could make things more difficult for Americans trying to exit from that war-torn country.
The latest development has also worsened Pakistan’s predicament. Surely Pakistan needs to tread a very cautious path so as not to get sucked into the conflict in any way. But as usual, there is no clarity in our policy. It is very strange that even Afghanistan has condemned the unprovoked US action, but not us. It is not enough to say that Pakistan does not support unilateral action. Far stronger condemnation of Trump’s action has come from Democratic Party presidential candidates in the United States.
Condemning an act of aggression does not mean taking sides in a conflict. In fact, docility raises questions about our independence. The statement issued by the ISPR has made things more confusing. The issue here is not that Pakistan would not allow any country to use its soil against another; it is more a matter of taking a clear position on an act of aggression.
More importantly, it is the responsibility of the foreign minister and Foreign Office, and not the military spokesperson, to give policy statements on such sensitive matters. Policy statements issued through Twitter make things more complicated and add to the confusion. America does not need to use Pakistani territory for any military action against Iran. Such statements don’t make sense.
Intriguingly, instead of calling his Pakistani counterpart, the US secretary of state chose to brief the army chief. One is not sure that it was done purposely. It is also intriguing that the US decision to revive a training programme for Pakistani military officials that was taken months ago was highlighted again a day after the killing of Gen Soleimani. Was it just a coincidence?
It has become a habit with the PTI government to delay taking policy decisions and to deliberately keep things vague. The policy statements particularly by the foreign minister are generally rhetorical and lack clarity. The way we backed out at the last moment from the Kuala Lumpur Summit under Saudi pressure is an example of the prevailing disarray in our foreign policy. Debate on foreign policy in parliament lacks seriousness and substance.
The latest escalation in the region has a direct bearing on Pakistan and it was an oversimplification on the foreign minister’s part when he told senators that Pakistan would not pick sides. There is need for a comprehensive debate in parliament on the latest development and repercussions for Pakistan of Trump’s actions. It would have been more prudent for the government to lay down all the facts and clearly articulate its own stance.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, January 8th, 2020