ISLAMABAD: US President Donald Trump has, in the words of Democrat 2020 frontrunner Joe Biden, “tossed a stick of dynamite into tinderbox” by ordering the killing of the most revered Iranian military commander, Maj Gen Qassem Suleimani, in a drone strike.
Belligerent rhetoric from both sides has raised the spectre of another armed conflict in the Middle East -- a possibly which could create foreign policy challenge for the regional countries.
Pakistan, which has already announced that it would not pick sides, reiterated on Monday that it would not be dragged into any conflict between Iran and the United States.
“We will not become part of any effort to light a fire, nor will we allow our soil to be used against any other state as part of our policy to prevent instability in the region,” Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi told lawmakers while making a policy statement in the upper house of parliament.
He urged both sides to deescalate tensions while making it clear that Pakistan would not allow its soil to be used by any side if a conflict ensues. “It will be disastrous if a conflict breaks out. It will also engulf us,” he added.
The policy statement came a day after the chief military spokesperson, Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor, quoted Prime Minister Imran Khan and army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, as saying that “Pakistan will not become party to anyone or anything but will be a partner of peace and peace alone.”
Soon after Friday’s US drone strike that killed Qassem Suleimani, who enjoyed a cult status in Iran, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo telephoned Pakistan’s army chief to discuss the regional situation and possible implication of the American move. Gen Qamar called on “all sides to exercise maximum restraint” to avoid a conflict in the region.
The foreign minister, in his statement, offered to mediate between Iran and the United States as Pakistan has done in the past. “The Middle East was and is volatile, and this region can’t afford another war. We are part of this region and when a fire erupts there, Pakistan can’t escape,” he told the lawmakers.
Quoting regional experts, Qureshi said the repercussions of the Iranian general’s killing could be more severe than the 2011 raid that killed al Qaeda kingpin Osama bin Laden and the 2019 killing of self-styled caliph of the Islamic State Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.
On Sunday, the foreign minister called up his counterparts from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates to discuss the unfolding situation in the region. “I decided to contact the important foreign ministers of the region,” he said. “I spoke in detail to the Iranian foreign minister [Jawad Zarif] and presented Pakistan’s stance on the incident and gained information from him,” Qureshi said. Iran’s foreign minister “believes this act [killing of Suleimani] has dramatically escalated the regional situation”.
The minister told the lawmakers that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenie has promised revenge for Suleimani’s killing, while Iranian President Hassan Rowhani has termed the US drone strike “international terrorism”.
Iraq, the foreign minister added, has decided to send its foreign minister to the United Nations to record a protest because in their view the strike has violated international law and the UN Charter. He urged the UN secretary general to play his role in protecting the region from conflagration.
Qureshi said the US has admitted that President Donald Trump ordered the “pre-emptive strike”, in the wake of reports that Suleimani was allegedly plotting an attack on US soldiers and diplomats.
“These tensions have not arisen overnight but the situation has been intensifying over a period of time,” Qureshi told the senators. However, this specific act by the US has aggravated the situation in the region. “The US claims the action was preventive in nature and was not meant to ignite a war and that it is ready to deescalate the situation,” he said, “but at the same time they [the US] have warned that if Iran retaliates, our response will be even stronger than before.”
Qureshi’s policy statement came on the direction of the Senate chairman, who asked the minister last week to brief the house on foreign policy matters. Qureshi mentioned 11 reasons why Pakistan is concerned about the escalation in the US-Iran tensions.
He said Suleimani's death would further destabilise the region, especially the situation in Iraq and Syria, while the situation in Yemen could also get out of hand and attacks by Houthi rebels on Saudi Arabia could increase as well as Hezbollah’s rocket attacks against Israel.
The foreign minister warned that the escalating situation could lead to high-profile assassinations of US personnel in the region, while route blockades could be enacted in the Persian Gulf, which could affect oil supply, creating a negative impact on regional and global economy.
After Suleimani’s assassination, he went on to say, 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 2015 agreement.
The minister expressed fear that the incident could trigger an upsurge in sectarian tensions, including in Afghanistan. "We believe this could have a negative impact on Afghanistan, and that its peace process could be affected and exploited by the spoilers," he added.
He also warned that the escalating crisis could lead to terrorism rearing its head in Pakistan again, while at the same time India might pounce on the chance to destabilise Pakistan and conduct false-flag operations.
The situation, the minister said, has impacted the Pakistan government’s efforts to unite the forum of the Organisation of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC) on human rights violations in Indian Occupied Kashmir.
Qureshi announced that he has set up a task force in the Foreign Office, which would keep an eye on the evolving situation on a day-to-day basis and apprise the government and present its recommendations. In the end, he summed up Pakistan’s position on the situation, saying:
“Pakistan does not support any unilateral action and is against the use of force as it never resolves matters; “Pakistan backs principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity as enshrined in the UN Charter; “Pakistan urges all parties to exercise maximum restraint; “I even urged Iran to exercise its traditional wisdom and refrain from any escalatory measures in the larger interest of the region; “The Middle East cannot be pushed into another war, it will be disastrous and Pakistan will also face the repercussions of such an occurrence; “Pakistan’s soil will not be used against any other state and Pakistan will not be party to this regional conflict; and, “The UN Secretary General must play his role in safeguarding the region and putting out this fire.”
Commenting on Qureshi's statement, Opposition Leader Raja Zafarul Haq said the foreign minister's assessment did not show any light at the end of the tunnel. "Pakistan is in the position to play its part in the prevailing situation," he added.
Another opposition senator, Mushahidullah Khan, expressed disappointment at the briefing, saying that US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo called several prime ministers and foreign ministers but there was no call to our prime minister or the foreign minister.
“Nowadays, our foreign ministry does everything other than taking [foreign policy] decisions. Why is the government not playing the part of a mediator," he asked. "The government must understand the fact that Iran is a brotherly country and not the US."
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