Most likely these are the waning days of the Trump administration. Polls show Joe Biden, his Democratic rival in the presidential election of November 3, 2020, with a healthy lead. Trump himself has begun to talk about a “rigged election” leading to his removal from the White House. There are some analysts who believe that Trump is not beyond creating a foreign crisis to shore up his chances in the elections. The Middle East is one geographic space where he may be thinking of some kind of military play. China could be another but that would involve a costly confrontation on which Trump’s America may not be prepared to embark. If China is targeted, the focus would be on some of the areas that are of strategic interest for Beijing and where China is already militarily involved. The upper Himalayas is one place where India, now a close American ally, is actively confronting China. But it will be in the Middle East that Trump is most likely to strike. In the Middle East, if Trump acts to help him in the elections, Iran will be the most likely target. If this happens it would have serious consequences for Pakistan.
As Jackson Diehl, a Washington Post columnist says, foreign leaders read polls and some of them are sprinting to take advantage of Trump’s willingness to tolerate initiatives they know would be unacceptable to Biden if he were to move into the White House. “None are running faster than Benjamin Netanyahu — who, along with Vladimir Putin, has already been the biggest international beneficiary of the Trump administration.” The Israeli Prime Minister is fighting hard at home to escape being formally charged for corruption. He is also looking for foreign adventures to divert domestic attention. He is already involved in two adventures, both audacious and risky. One is to annex 30% of the West Bank it occupied in 1967 but against the laws of war did not vacate once the conflict was over. Instead, Israel began to settle newly arrived immigrants in the occupied land. Now under the guise of Trump’s dormant Middle East plan developed by Jared Kushner, the President’s devout Jewish son-in-law, Netanyahu would like to add parts of the West Bank to the state’s territory. The other move involves Iran, a favourite Trump target and also that of his Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo.
In the past few weeks, according to Post’s Diehl, “Israel has apparently been conducting what amounts to a slow-motion, semi-covert military campaign against Iran’s nuclear and missile programmes, and perhaps other industrial and infrastructure targets as well. Mysterious explosions and fires have struck a key centrifuge production facility, a military base where missiles are produced, as well as power plants, aluminum and chemical factories, and a medical clinic. Last week, a fire erupted at the port of Bushehr on the Persian Gulf, destroying seven ships.” The Israelis were not particularly shy about distancing themselves from these activities. “I’m surprised the Israelis have not been more circumspect about this,” said Dennis Ross, a former senior Middle East adviser in several past Washington administrations. He and several other analysts say Netanyahu almost certainly obtained Trump administration’s consent, if not collaboration for the Israeli offensive. The question is: How would Tehran react to these provocations? The answer is important for Islamabad since it would bring conflict right to the Pakistani border.
Returning to the Diehl assessment of the situation: “Yet despite the risks, Trump appears to be all in on the Iran campaign. No doubt that is partly because the President and his Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, are nearly as zealous as Netanyahu about destroying the Iranian regime. But it is also because Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign has ended up heightening rather than decreasing the threat it poses, while all but excluding remedies other than the military action.” Iran’s cleric rulers have shown that they can use options other than the use of their military to respond to the combined military action by the United States and Israel. They could disrupt world oil supply. That won’t hurt the US as much as was the case in the past. By investing massively in fracking and other new technologies to reach reserves in the ground that were not readily available in the past, America has increased the domestic supply of oil to make it self-sufficient. That notwithstanding, any major disturbance in the Gulf would deliver a shock to the global economy at the time when it is dealing with the severe consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Iran has moved to increase its options by approaching China and concluding a deal with that country. This was detailed in a document prepared by the two sides that runs over 18 pages. The document was in preparation for two years. Its opening sentence refers to “two ancient Asian cultures, two partners in the sectors of trade, economy, politics, culture and security with similar outlook and many mutual bilateral and multilateral interests that make them strategic partners.”
Work on the joint plan began after a China-Iran arrangement was proposed by President Xi Jinping in 2016, during a visit to Tehran. It was approved by President Hassan Rouhani’s cabinet in June 2020 and announced by Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. When implemented, it would provide billions of dollars of Chinese investments in energy and other sectors, undermining Trump administration’s efforts to isolate Iran. In return, China would receive a regular supply of Iranian oil over the next 25 years. China gets about 75% of its oil from abroad and is the world’s largest importer at more than 10 million barrels a day. A good part of this oil would enter the planned Pakistan-China oil pipeline at Gwadar, the deep-water port Pakistan is constructing with Chinese assistance on its Balochistan coast. The port is an important component of Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The Chinese identified a number of BRI projects as a part of their Iran investment programme making the country an important part of the Xi Jinping initiative. The proposed economic links between Beijing and Tehran could possibly add Iran to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that is under implementation.
Once the US has pulled out of Afghanistan, Kabul would be free to act to serve its strategic interests. It has interest in working with China which needs the abundant mineral resources Afghanistan has which remain unexploited. China is already involved in tapping iron ore in a mine on which it has been working now for a while. Afghanistan also has large reserves of lithium, a metal in great demand for developing products that use modern technologies. Afghanistan does not have oil which it could get from Iran. Pakistan could provide the linkages that are needed to move these materials around. While this kind of reaction is not a part of the American game in the Middle East it may result as one of its unintended consequences.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 27th, 2020.