Possible trouble brewing in Pakistan’s neighbourhood

Of particular worry for Pakistan is Washington’s building tension with Iran

Shahid Javed Burki January 21, 2019
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president of the World Bank

During the first few months of his tenure as prime minister, Imran Khan has shown a strong preference for sustained peace in Pakistan’s neighbourhood. Only with that in place will he be able to attract some of the country’s neighbours and near-neighbours to invest in Pakistan’s economic  development.

But that wish may not get fulfilled largely on account of the belligerence on the part of some policymakers in Washington which is directed towards two Pakistani neighbours — China and Iran, and the pursuit of erratic policies it is pursuing in Afghanistan.

Of particular worry for Pakistan is Washington’s building tension with Iran. According to several newspaper reports in the United States, there are some powerful influences working on President Donald Trump to escalate the growing conflict with Iran.

They would like an active military confrontation with Tehran that would set back that country’s military preparedness. John Bolton, now the national security adviser, had opposed the nuclear deal when it was being negotiated.

In an article published in The New York Times in 2015, he wrote, “The inconvenient truth is that only military action like Israel’s 1981 attack on Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor or its 2007 destruction of a Syrian reactor, designed and built by North Korea, can accomplish what is required. Time is very short, but a strike can succeed.”

Having entered the White House, Bolton was in a position to act on the ideas he had espoused. “At the direction of its leader, John Bolton, the National Security Council asked the Pentagon last year to provide military options to strike Iran after militants hit an empty American lot in Baghdad,” wrote Eric Schmitt and Mark Lander in The New York Times.

Bolton’s request was first reported by The Wall Street Journal, a conservative newspaper generally aligned with President Trump’s worldview. The request followed a statement issued by the White House which warned Iran against promoting attacks such as the one launched on September 6.

“The United States will hold the regime in Tehran accountable for any attack that results in injury to our personnel or damage to the United States government facilities. America will respond swiftly and decisively in defense of American lives.”

The Pentagon was asked to develop ideas about the “swift and decisive response”. The request alarmed then defence secretary Jim Mattis. The Pentagon came up with some general options, arguing that militants’ attack was insignificant and could not be attributed to a decision by the authorities in Tehran to hit American assets or to take American lives.

The kind of strike Bolton was looking for would have quickly escalated into a broad Middle East conflict. It could have prompted Iraq to order the United States to leave the country, tilting that Arab state further in the direction of Iran.

“Since Mr Bolton took over from H R McMaster in April, he has intensified the administration’s policy of isolating and pressuring Iran — reflecting an animus against Iran’s leaders that dates back to his days as an official in the George W Bush administration. As a private citizen, he later called for military strikes on Iran as well as regime change,” continued Schmitt and Landler in their assessment.

Bolton succeeded in some areas: he was behind Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal. He also seemed to have persuaded his president to keep American troops in Syria’s northeast, fearing that the vacuum created by the United States withdrawal will be filled by Iran.

Bolton is not the only Iran hawk in Trump’s circle of advisers. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is another. In a speech delivered at the American University in Cairo in mid-January, he said, “Countries increasingly understand that we must confront the Ayatollahs, not coddle them.”

Iran has begun to react in a way that may give Washington the reason for taking military action of the type conducted by Israel against the Arab states it regarded as its enemies.

Ali Akbar Salehi, an MIT educated physicist who helped negotiate the nuclear deal, said on January 13 that his country had begun “preliminary activities for designing” a process for enrichment of uranium. It cannot do this under the 2015 deal.

If it did, it too would be walking out of the agreement. Why this fixation with Iran and what would be the consequences for Pakistan if the Americans do carry out a military operation against Tehran? The focus on Iran is because of the close relations of the Trump’s White House with Israel, a country that treats Iran as its most dangerous enemy.

Under the influence of Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law who is a conservative Jew, the United States has already taken actions that were unthinkable in the past. It has recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and stopped the United Nations from providing assistance to the Palestinians.

An American attack on Iran would further unsettle the Middle East. History tells us that once shots begin to be fired and bombs begin to be dropped, it is hard to predict which way the conflict would go.

The United States may succeed in destroying Iran’s military hardware and many of its defence facilities. What it would not succeed in doing is to curb the militia activity that would undoubtedly be unleashed by Iran’s sympathisers. They will be as difficult to overpower as the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Iran’s retaliatory action would probably pull in Saudi Arabia into the conflict. The kingdom would be tempted to use its formidable airpower to strike at Iran. But as the war in Yemen has demonstrated, airpower unaided by boots on the ground does not accomplish the military objectives. What would ensue is a long-drawn-out struggle that would split the world of Islam.

All these activities would both directly and indirectly hurt Pakistan. They would show once again that Pakistan does not fully control its destiny. They would distract Saudi Arabia at a time it is getting ready to make large investments in Pakistan. And it would distance Iran from Pakistan.

One hard to predict consequence would be China’s position. Challenged by the United States, Beijing is likely to side with Iran. All in all, if John Bolton succeeds, the consequences for Pakistan would be extraordinary.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 21st, 2019.

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nad | 2 years ago | Reply Very well explained.Pakistan must be prepared and should not get itself sucked into this quagmire.After all the troubles and difficulties faced due to Afghan conflict we know the burnt is faced by the weaker partner.
Kolsat | 2 years ago | Reply As alluded by the author the US is following a dangerous strategy at the behest of US conservatives and Israel. This is not in anyone's interest. One should remeber that US gets into a zone and then leaves it task incomplete eg Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan. Friends of US such as the Saudis and Pakistan should try to dissuade US from isolating Iran. The 2015 nuclear deal was best for bringing Iran closer to the western world which the US was wrong in breaking. Hope sanity prevails though I doubt it.
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