By Ambassador®Abdul Basit
Following the killing of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani by the US on 3 January in Baghdad, a conflict between the two seemingly pathological antagonists seemed inevitable. The people of Iran were crying for a revenge. And on 8 January, Tehran fired missiles on the US military base in Baghdad causing some structural damages but no casualties. Immediately, Tehran announced that it had taken and “concluded proportionate measures in self-defense under Article 51 of UN Charter”.
Foreign Minister Javad Zarif emphasized that “We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression.”
Meanwhile, the focus also shifted to the Ukrainian airliner that, according to the Iranian authorities was shot down by their defense forces as a result of human error. Out of 176 killed, over 80 passengers were Iranian. This led to several protests in Iran even demanding that the Supreme Leader must step down.
It was on the same day i.e. after the Iranian attack on the US military base that Prime Minister Imran Khan in a tweet conveyed that he had asked Foreign Minister Qureshi to visit Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the US to meet with his counterparts, and Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa to contact relevant military leaders to convey a clear message. He added, “Pakistan is ready to play its role for peace but it can never again be part of any war.”
It was only on 13 January that Foreign Minister Qureshi could begin his trip starting with Tehran. Besides Riyadh, New York and Washington DC, he also visited Muscat and Doha and returned to Pakistan on 19 January.
Many analysts in Pakistan raised questions about Prime Minister’s initiative. Fundamentally, three points were underlined. First, there was no immediate threat of escalation since the Iranian action did not result in US casualties and that Iran had categorically announced that it had “concluded proportionate measures in defense.” US State Secretary Mike Pompeo had also announced that the US was not seeking escalation. Given this backdrop, it was argued that as the two hostile parties had themselves ratcheted down the situation, what role was then left for Pakistan to play.
Second, Pakistan though a big country with nuclear weapons had no significant leverage to mediate either between Iran and US on the Iranian nuclear deal or between Saudi Arabia and Iran on their deep animosity. In fact, Pakistan’s economic situation and its dependency on Saudi Arabia and UAE could not allow it to be neutral. Dependency ineluctably weakens state’s credentials and its clout in international relations.
Third, Pakistan should have been more concerned about Kashmir and the obtaining tense situation with India rather than shifting its diplomatic focus and energy to the theatre in which it could barely pitch in. It was in any case bad diplomacy to try punching above one’s weight.
It was also additionally argued that the whole exercise was undertaken for the domestic political consumption. As Imran Khan’s government did not have much to celebrate on the economic front and that its Kashmir diplomacy had already lost much of its steam, it made political sense to demonstrate how worried Pakistan was and hence could not stay nonchalant.
No wonder, Foreign Minister Qureshi thus ended up spending most of his trip in New York and Washington focusing more on Kashmir, Indo-Pak relations, Afghanistan and Pak-US relations. In New York he met the UN Secretary General, talking mostly about Kashmir and India. His meetings in Washington with Secretary Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor Robert O’Brian were in large part were about bilateral relations, FATF and India-Pakistan relations.
The Foreign Minister, however, did counsel restraint to the US lest escalation with Iran, amongst other things, also adversely affect the reconciliation process in Afghanistan. He also, according to some sources, advised the US to leave the door ajar for the 2015 Iran nuclear deal as it appeared well-nigh impossible for Tehran to revisit the agreement without an adequate face-saving formula. Qureshi also cautioned against invoking the dispute settlement mechanism and taking the matter to the UN Security Council.
It remains to be seen what would the Trump administration likely do in the months ahead? As things stand, it seems highly unlikely President Trump would be inclined to soften his policy vis-à-vis Iran especially when it is also an election year in the US.
All said and done, Pakistan realizes that another conflict in the region will be too catastrophic not only for Pakistan but also for the region as a whole, including for the tenuous peace process in Afghanistan.
Pakistan realizes that another conflict in the region will be too catastrophic not only for Pakistan but also for the region as a whole
The country struggling so hard economically can ill-afford to yet again put strains on its relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE by staying neutral. Prime Minister Imran Khan would definitely not want to be finding himself in such a cleft stick.
Writer of this article Ambassador Abdul Basit is a retired Pakistani diplomat who served also as former high commissioner of Pakistan to India. He is the President of Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies (PICSS), Islamabad. PICSS is an Islamabad-based Think Tank.
Ambassador Abdul Basit also has been hosting Current Affairs shows on televisions and writes regularly for international and national media outlets. He is considered as one of the most respected Diplomats in international as well as national Diplomatic Circles. The views and opinions expressed in this article/Opinion/Comment are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Dispatch News Desk (DND). Assumptions made within the analysis are not reflective of the position of Dispatch News Desk.