Iran and the Middle East conundrum

Published: November 25, 2019
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The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and has served as vice-president of the World Bank

The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and has served as vice-president of the World Bank

What happens in the Middle East would have direct consequences for Pakistan. For analytical purposes we should divide the region into three parts: the Arab region and the countries to its east that include, in addition to Afghanistan, three of the largest nations in the Muslim world — Pakistan, Iran and Turkey. The third part is made up of the Central Asian nations that were once part of the Soviet Union. Having been given independence in 1991, these five nations are searching for their identity and are also seeking to connect themselves with the parts of the world that have been out of reach for them. It is in this context that we should view the arrival of China in the region. Its Belt and Road Initiative, the BRI, is designed in part to provide connectivity to the landlocked countries in Central Asia.

There are a number of developments — some of them recent and some going back many decades — that continue to unsettle the Middle East. Some of these are political, some demographic and some are the result of the budding large-power rivalry. I will begin with a discussion of the last. For close to half a century after the end of the Second World War, the intense competition between the United States and Soviet Union resulted in the Cold War. The two superpowers worked hard to increase the geographic space in their respective domains. The Middle East was a contested area and for some time Egypt, the Arab world’s largest country in terms of population, sided with the. In 1979, with the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union, the Cold War became hot in a limited sense. However, when Moscow was forced out of Afghanistan it led to a chain of events that culminated with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the demise of communism in Europe. With the communist ideology gone, Western-style liberal democracy emerged as the preferred system of governance.

The United States was now the dominant power. Its domination was challenged in the early 2000s not by a state but by a series of stateless operators starting with Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda. The United States invasion of Afghanistan in December 2001 led to the weakening of the group. However, when Washington followed up on this operation with another military intervention — this time in Iraq — it laid the ground for the emergence of the Islamic State (IS). The West — in particular the United States — has not found a way of tackling this phenomenon. The rise of these Islamic groups has led to the re-engagement of Russia in the Middle East with Moscow taking advantage of both the semi-withdrawal of the United States from the region and the regrouping of local powers in the area.

Pakistan would be affected by these mostly adverse global developments in several different ways. Most important of these developments was the withdrawal of the United States as a supporter of democracy and human rights around the globe. Donald Trump did not hide his admiration for strong, authoritarian leaders. He felt comfortable in the company of rulers such as Erdogan of Turkey, Sisi of Egypt, Muhammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and Narendra Modi of India.

Iran is now in the eye of a storm that is the result of the stiff sanctions imposed by the Trump administration. Washington had withdrawn from the 2015 nuclear deal the Obama administration had negotiated and was signed by all major world powers. The reason for the withdrawal was the stiff opposition by Israel that regarded the agreement not going far enough. Israelis wanted Iran to be pushed back not only from the programme to develop a nuclear bomb but also to give up the development of missiles. The beefed-up sanctions have caused hardship for the Iranian people. When in mid-November Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, supported a gas price increase, it spurred three days of protests. At least 12 people died. More then 1,000 ware arrested and the government imposed an almost complete nationwide internet blackout on November 17. This was one of its most draconian attempts to cut off Iranians from each other and the rest of the world. In the past one month Iran had faced a fierce backlash in regional countries such as Lebanon and Iraq where protesters called for ending Iran’s outsized influence in their domestic affairs.

Both the United States and Israel were troubled by the Iranian support of militias in the Middle East. On November 19, 2019 The New York Times and The Intercept, published a long story — one of the longest carried by the former in recent months — based on leaked files that told the story of how the Iranian intelligence agencies had penetrated Iraq especially after the United States invaded the country in 2003. The US also maintained a strong intelligence presence in the country. There was a tacit agreement between Iran and the United States, that the person given the seat of power as the prime minister in Baghdad would have the approval of both countries. The current holder of the job, Adil Abdul Mahdi, was acceptable to both.

In Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, which Iran considers crucial for its national security, the country’s Revolutionary Guards — and in particular its elite Quds Force led by General Qasim Suleimani — determines Iran’s policies. In gaining influence in Iraq, the Iranians relied on the network created by the US Central Intelligence Agency, the CIA. Tehran also made an attempt to recruit a spy inside the State Department. “In interviews, Iranian officials acknowledged that Iran viewed surveillance activity in Iraq after the United States invasion critical to its survival and national security,” wrote the authors of the long story. President George W Bush had declared lran to be part of an “axis of evil” and Iranian leaders believed Tehran would be next on Washington’s list of regime change.

With shared faith and tribal affiliations that span a porous border, Iran has long been a major presence in Southern Iraq. Its main worry is the possibility of Iraq falling apart, from breeding Sunni militants on the Iranian border; from descending into sectarian warfare that might make Shias the targets of violence; and from spinning off an independent Kurdistan that would threaten regional stability and Iranian territorial integrity.

The way the Iranian situation evolves would matter not only for the entire Middle Eastern region but also for Pakistan. The recent visit by the Pakistani Army Chief to Tehran is an indication that policymakers in both Rawalpindi and Islamabad are watching the developing situation.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 25th, 2019.

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