WASHINGTON: Addressing concerns about escalating tensions between Pakistan and Iran, the US State Department has rejected the suggestion that this week’s cross-border air strikes between the two neighbours was an extension of the Gaza crisis.

“I don’t think it’s in any way connected to Gaza. But given the tensions in the region, there is the risk for an increase in conflict, which is something that we’re trying to avoid,” the department’s spokesperson, Matthew Miller, said at a news briefing in Washington on Thursday.

When questioned about potential escalation and Pakistan’s alliance with the US, Miller affirmed: “Pakistan is a major non-Nato ally. That will remain the case. But we would urge restraint in this case. We do not want to see an escalation.”

Johmn Kirby, a coordinator for strategic communications with the National Security Council, echoed these sentiments at a separate briefing, stating: “We’re monitoring this very closely. We don’t want to see an escalation in South Asia, and we’re in touch with our Pakistani counterparts.”

When asked if Pakistan had alerted the US before launching retaliatory attacks, he said: “I am not aware of any pre-notification that we received.”

Regarding potential US support for Pakistan, Kirby did not provide a definitive answer, stating: “I don’t have an update for you on that.”

Anne Patterson, a former US ambassador to Pakistan, suggested that the incident had created an opportunity for the United States to rebuild trust with Pakistan.

“It would not take much effort on the part of the United States to use this incident to begin to rebuild trust with Pakistan instead of ceding leadership to China,” she told the Atlantic Council.

“The overworked Qataris, who have good relations with both countries, could play a role, as could others, such as Kuwait and maybe even Saudi Arabia,” she added.

Patterson also noted that the US influence with Islamabad had waned because of “the US decision to keep Pakistan at arm’s length”.

“Pakistan’s army chief received that message loud and clear in his recent visit to Washington,” said Anne Patterson, urging the US administration to reconsider its attitude.

Former US special representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, while talking to Dawn, urged Pakistan and Iran to sign an agreement to disallow the use of their territories by militants. He also emphasised the need for a confidence-building mechanism.

“Neither side has an interest in escalation, but bad things can happen even if they don’t want it,” he said, hoping that Pakistan and Iran would “take a diplomatic initiative to preclude not only escalation but also to avoid the repetition of what has already happened”.

Another Atlantic Council scholar, Shuja Nawaz, wondered whether “Iran believes that the United States has been covertly aiding Jaish Al Adl”.

If so, then “that could explain Tehran’s decision to attack inside Pakistani territory”, he added.

Nawaz warns that “a weak caretaker government in Pakistan cobbled together to hold elections may not be best equipped to deal with these complicated issues” and might find itself “allowing the military to take centre stage”.

Published in Dawn, January 20th, 2024

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