The U.S.-Iran conflict reached a tipping point the first week of January 2020, when the U.S. Army killed Iran’s top military commander Qassem Soleimani, followed by Tehran’s salvo of ballistic missile attacks on Iraqi military bases hosting American troops. While the U.S. appears determined to pursue a regime change in Tehran or at least change the latter’s behavior in the Middle East, Iran also seems adamant that it won’t budge under the Trump administration’s maximum pressure strategy.
It all started with U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision in May 2018 to back out from the Iranian nuclear, or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as it is termed. For any U.S. Government, the root of the problem is the post-1979 Iranian government’s anti-America and anti-Israel ideology; its regional politics aimed at driving U.S. troops’ presence out of the Middle East; exporting the anti-US and anti-Israel ideological politics and militant groups in regional countries extending from Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq to Yemen; a missile development program that threatens the U.S. and its allies in the Mideast; and, the potential nuclear weapon development program, which is aimed at Israel and the United States.
Brief Historical Background. Since 1980s, the United States and its European partners, including Britain, France, and Germany, have imposed sanctions on Iran that expanded over the period of time to include assets freeze, visa ban, restrictions on trade, energy, transport services, and transfer of arms and equipment that could contribute to Iran’s advancement in weapon technology. The overall objective of the sanctions has been to stop Tehran’s uranium-enrichment program. Since 2006, nuclear diplomacy between the P5+1 (the U.S., China, Russia, Britain, and France, plus Germany) and Iran also continued, culminating into the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or simply an Iran nuclear deal.
JCPOA contained a “dispute resolution mechanism,” which could be invoked if a party to the deal finds that another party falls short of compliance to the deal so that the joint commission of P5+1 resolves any discrepancy. If the joint commission fails to resolve the issue, it will then refer the issue to the UN Security Council, which will adjudicate accordingly.
As a result of the JCPOA, sanctions were lifted off Tehran’s economy and its nuclear program and nuclear facilities came under the IAEA inspection and safeguards. After a lapse of three years, US President felt that the JCPOA did not stop Tehran’s hostile activities against the U.S. interests in the Middle East and therefore he backtracked from the deal in May 2018.
Reasons of U.S.’s Withdrawal from JCPOA. US President Donald Trump cited three reasons for backing out from the Iranian nuclear deal.
One, the deal did not place a permanent ban on Iran’s nuclear program, as it would expire in 2030. Two, the deal did not include a restriction on Tehran’s recourse to regional militia groups to promote its ideology and serve its strategic interests in the Middle East. Three, the deal did not stop Tehran from its ballistic missile program, which posed security risks to the interests of the U.S. and its allies in West Asia.
Iran, on the other hand, claimed that it complied with the JCPOA; the IAEA and other parties to deal also acknowledged that Iran did not demonstrate significant noncompliance. Tehran kept on pushing the European signatories to the deal to hold their end of the bargain and do not discontinue the trade and investment relations with Tehran.
Iran and Its Proxy Groups’ Belligerent Response. Amidst the nuclear diplomacy post-American withdrawal from JCPOA, Tehran and its proxy groups in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen continued their sub-conventional militant strikes against U.S. military facilities and Saudi and Emirati oil facilities in the Mideast. These attacks included the downing of an American surveillance drone over the Strait of Hormuz by Iran; a drone strike against oil facilities of Saudi’s Aramco; militant strikes against Emirati oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman; and detention of British naval vessels for some time in the Persian Gulf by Iranian Navy.
A rocket strike of an Iran-backed Iraqi militia group, Kata’ib Hezbollah, on US military facilities in Iraq and the group’s local supporters’ attempt at firebombing the American embassy in Baghdad proved too costly for Iran as it led to the killing of its top military commander Qassem Soleimani by an American drone strike on January 3rd, 2020.
The recent U.S.-Iran military confrontation did not escalate to a full-scale war since Donald Trump considered Iran’s counter-strike on American military facilities in Iraq as not leading to any casualty of American troops. However, there was a real danger of escalation of the conflict and it could conflagrate in the wider region in West and South Asia.
Although both the rival parties apparently stood down, there is a constant threat of Iranian militia groups’ attacks on Saudi and Emirati oil facilities and American military facilities in Iraq and Syria.
In the crunch, the military confrontation could also lead to the naval blockade of the Persian Gulf and the rise in global oil prices due to the suspension of energy supplies from the Mideast. Every day, twenty to thirty percent of crude oil in general and ninety percent of Saudi energy exports, in particular, cross the Strait of Hormuz. Last year, a simple drone strike by Houthis on Saudi’s Aramco oil facility suspended fifty-percent of Saudi oil exports, which comprise about five percent of oil supplies to the world.
Implications of Security Crisis in the Middle East for Pakistan. The security crisis in the Middle East could have adverse implications for Pakistan’s economy and security. This also necessitates Pakistan’s increasing diplomatic engagement to avert the conflict from escalating.
Pakistan’s 95 percent of energy imports come from the Persian Gulf. Pakistan purchased oil supplies of $9.9 billion on deferred payments for a period of three years from Saudi Arabia. It also heavily depends on Qatar’s LNG supplies. Moreover, upwards of four million Pakistanis work in Saudi Arabia and the UAE and over 170,000 expatriates live in Qatar. In the FY2019, Pakistani expatriates sent back over $9 billion in remittances. A security crisis in the Middle East will put a heavy burden on Pakistan’s economy, as the country will lose a significant amount of foreign exchange reserves and may also have to bear the cost of repatriation of the workers back home. Suspension of energy imports from the Persian Gulf will be equivalent to jamming the engine of Pakistan’s economic growth.
Not the least, Iran-US military confrontation may also lead to the derailment of the Afghan peace process. America’s diversion of interest from Afghanistan may lead to an acceleration of terrorist attacks by the Islamic State in Afghanistan. Instability in Afghanistan will also have inevitable security implications for Pakistan.
Pakistan’s Role: Past and Present. Officially, Pakistan has maintained a firm stance that it would not be a party to regional conflict and will only partner in peace. Be it Pakistan Army Chief of Staff’s talk with U.S. Secretaries of State and Defense or Pakistani Premier and Foreign Minister’s statement at international forums, Pakistan seeks to play a role of mediation between the rival parties and to work for defusing the security crisis in the region. In the words of a Pakistani strategist, Dr. Adil Sultan, Pakistan will play a role of a peace broker in the region. There are various historical and recent examples where Islamabad played its neutral role in regional conflicts, even when pressure mounted to ally with one state against the other.
In the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, Pakistan’s then leadership convened a conference of Muslim countries and also spoke at the UN General Assembly for the peaceful resolution of the conflict between Iran and Iraq. However, Saudi Arabia and UAE wanted Pakistan to support Iraq. In the early 1990s, in the Gulf War, while the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf stood by the US, Pakistan only deployed its forces in Saudi Arabia for the defense of holy cities of Mecca and Medina, not against Iraq. However, New Delhi provided military facilities and airstrips for the American troops for stopover and refueling. In 2003, in the context of the U.S. war against Iraq, Pakistan was a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council and stated firmly its non-involvement in the war against Iraq and supported diplomatic resolution of the conflict.
There are other recent incidents where Pakistan pursued its national interest and did not waver despite pressure from certain countries to do otherwise. In 2015, Pakistan opposed the U.S.-led campaign to topple Bashar-ul-Assad, supported Syrian territorial integrity and did not oblige Riyadh’s demands of backstopping its anti-Syria security campaign. In 2015, when Saudi faced the threat of Houthi rebels in Yemen, Pakistan deployed its forces for the security of Riyadh against terrorism and refused to offer any military support against Iran. Pakistan’s Parliament passed a unanimous resolution against joining Saudi’s war against Iran.
When US President Donald Trump withdrew from the Iranian nuclear deal, Pakistan supported Iran’s stance and urged the US to recommit to the deal and deplored the unilateral withdrawal. In 2019, when Saudis and Emiratis enforced a diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar, Islamabad and Doha made a contract for the LNG supplies from Doha. Recently, when US top diplomat for South and Central Asia Alice Wells criticized the CPEC and Chinese investments, Pakistan’s Senate condemned Ms. Wells’ remarks against the Pakistan-China trade and investment relationship.
As for the withdrawal from the Kuala Lumpur Summit in 2019, it needs to be recalled that Pakistan is a member of D-8 organization, a group of eight developing countries, including Pakistan, Malaysia, Turkey, Indonesia, Iran, Bangladesh, Egypt, and Nigeria. D-8 was established in 1997 with the predominant objective of strengthening trade and economic relations among the member states.
The KL Summit’s objectives included reviving Islamic civilization, contributing to the welfare of Muslims, deliberating over solutions to problems facing Muslim countries, and forming a network of Muslim countries and scholars. Arguably, these are the same objectives that can be worked through concerted efforts from the platform of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Thus, creating a bloc that kind of conveys mixed signals about Muslim unity would not serve the overall objective of addressing the challenges facing the Islamic world. Pakistan, therefore, made the right decision of not being party to a regional bloc, which implied divisive undertones. However, the approach of responding to the call of Malaysian premier was regretful.
Unfounded Rumors of the Potential Use of Pakistan’s Military Bases. Some unsubstantiated gossips passed around that the US might have asked for Pakistan’s military support and that Islamabad might offer its military bases for operations against Iran. It needs to be emphasized that the current situation in the US-Iran war is unlike the one that was witnessed in the 1990s or 2003 when the US used regional military bases for operations and refueling facilities, without the danger of being struck by any precision-guided missiles.
In the current times, Tehran may use its precision conventional ballistic missiles to damage and degrade military facilities used by the US troops in the region. Facing a constant threat of incoming missiles, it might become quite difficult for the US Army to sustain military operations from the regional bases. Therefore, in a war with Iran, the US will have to use distant military bases and naval aircraft carriers beyond the reach of Iranian missiles. It will make the war costlier for the US. These factors take out the use of Pakistani military bases or refueling facilities out of the equation.
Conclusion. All things considered, Donald Trump’s maximum pressure strategy may produce two results: either it will compel Tehran to succumb to the pressure of harsh economic sanctions and come back to the negotiating table for a revised nuclear deal, which closes all the loopholes regarding its uranium enrichment, regional proxy groups, and ballistic missile program; or it may make Tehran embrace more belligerent policies against the US and its allies in the region, augment its nuclear activities and expand and intensify its proxy groups’ operations in the Middle East.
For Pakistan, neutrality in a conflict, and simultaneously, an active mediation among the warring nations have historically served its interests well in the long run. Pakistan has time and again proved that it would always seek to achieve its strategic objectives in a regional conflict situation and would continue to ally with other countries in efforts against terrorism and extremism and for long-lasting peace and respect for international law. Above all, Pakistan appears to work for the Muslim unity, but not at the expense of its relations with its neighboring countries and strong economic and strategic partners.
This article was published in the Strategic Foresight For ASIA on January 31, 2020.