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December 1, 2020

Alarm bells tolling again for regional volatility

Top Story

December 1, 2020

By Aamir Ghauri

On Sunday, Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders gathered in Aabpara for a “briefing” on national and regional security. Details are understandably scant but speculative discussion abounds. Guesstimates point to fluid border situation on the Line of Control, the OIC’s robust rebuke to India rejecting its unilateral and illegal actions in the Occupied Kashmir since 5 August 2019, the upcoming changeover in Washington, the slumbering China Pakistan Economic Corridor, the promised US military drawdown in Afghanistan etc. Domestic political chaos could have been sitting on the sidelines too. But pervasive volatility in the Middle East intensified by the last Friday’s assassination of a prominent Iranian nuclear scientist, the soaring regional diplomatic temperature thereof and the recent formation of the National Intelligence Coordination Committee and its challenges could possibly be the elephants in the room for the Sunday huddle.

Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was a leading figure in the Iranian nuclear programme, a physics professor and the head of Iranian Ministry of Defence’s Research and Innovation Organisation. It seemed he was a marked man ever since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu specifically named him in 2018 when he claimed Israel’s alleged removing of tons of evidentiary material from a Tehran warehouse detailing Iranian nuclear programme. “Remember that name, Fakhrizadeh,” Netanyahu was heard saying toward the end of his recorded presentation.

The Iranian leadership has now singled out Israel for the killing and vowed revenge at the time of their choosing. Prominent figures in the Iranian establishment have warned they would “descend like lightening on the killers…and make them regret their actions.” Iran has been targeted more than once this year. In January, General Qasem Soleimani, the head of Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Al-Quds Force was killed by the US in a targeted drone attack in Baghdad along with nine others when he was en route to meet Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi. Agnes Callamard, the UN’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial killing, described his killing as a violation of international law. Iranian nuclear facility at Natanz was also attacked in the middle of the year.

Prominent western commentators have described Fakhrizadeh’s assassination as an attempt to “cripple President-elect Joseph P Biden Jr’s efforts to revive the Iranian nuclear deal before he can begin his diplomacy with Tehran.” They also point to possible Israeli involvement in the hit and quote Prime Minister Netanyahu as saying, “There must be no return to the previous nuclear agreement,” when the latter finally realized that Trump was definitely on his way out of the White House and that Biden would be the next US President.

Keeping in focus the history of Iran-Israel-US hostility and conduct thereof it may be suggested that Tehran would avoid offering a chance to President Trump in his twilight days to do anything dramatic. It does not mean Iran would not retaliate to avenge the killing. The lame duck president had reportedly considered attacking Iran’s nuclear installations only a few weeks ago but was talked out of it by his advisors. There is no guarantee that he would not revisit his ambition before his term is out if a chance is offered.

Assuming the trouble in the Middle East would wane or vanish with Trump or that the septuagenarian Biden would be a Buddhaesque peacenik ready to employ reason and rationality rather than brute force to pursue national interest would be hoping for miracles. Obama charmed the world with lexiconic brilliance but kept bombing various parts of the world. The real issue remains the regional and global brinkmanship and one-upmanship between various actors for financial, geographic, territorial or historical reasons. And they seem to be heading in a direction that could have apocalyptic impact on the Middle East for generations.

That’s where the trouble starts for Pakistan. It has painfully maintained benign neutrality during previous devastating confrontations between “brotherly Islamic countries” over the decades and paid through blood and purse by failing to fully contain the religio-historical fault lines crossed during these conflicts. The wolf of war seems to be at the door once again. It would really test Pakistan’s diplomatic dexterity to navigate through the interest-laden quicksand. Pakistan’s perilously frail economy dictates Islamabad stayed away from taking sides, not for once but forever.

It would not be easy. The two pillars of Pakistani economy are its total exports and total remittances – approximately $24 billion and approximately $22 billion respectively. Around 50 per cent of total remittances come from the Gulf countries and they remain Pakistan’s substantial markets too. Any prolonged confrontation in the Middle East could cripple Pakistan’s economy. Taking sides would dismantle its diplomacy and regional standing and respect as well. The limp government machinery, relaxed administration and unnecessary appeasement of religious factions could also prove to be a tinderbox domestically if Pakistan sided with one actor.

Political fragility, administrative naiveté, diplomatic docility and emotional fraternity have not served Pakistan so far. Only fools would insist it would in future. Pakistan desperately needs to correct course. Decision-making must uphold national interest first. Lessons could be learnt from countries like Israel rather than stoking unnecessary national debate if Islamabad needed to recognize Tel Aviv or not. Most Gulf states do not possess standing or territorial armies and thereby remain dependent on others to fend for them. Sharing expertise and skills is welcome but Pakistan should rethink its policy of providing troops for phantom armies.

One earnestly hopes that Middle East avoids another war. Simultaneously, one wonders how much innocent blood is needed to quench the thirst of Middle Eastern sands. Millions have needlessly perished in recent wars that were planned remotely but prosecuted locally. Future has been stolen from generations in a faux hope to destroy “enemies” or plant democracy in a desert. Attempts, however, must not be abandoned to change the present so that a less hostile future is rewritten. For that leaders will have to bury their egos in the sand and gather courage to look their real enemies in the eye.