Preventing the next regional conflict
Pakistan certainly seems to be passing through one of it toughest phases, with turmoil internally and in the neighbourhood. Since the dismemberment of the country in 1971, the region has gone through four decades of continuous warfare. This has included the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iran-Iraq War of the 80s, the Afghan civil war of the 90s, and the present phase that began since 9/11.
It appears more than a simple coincidence that two of Pakistan’s immediate neighbours to the west, Iran and Afghanistan, were invaded at about the same time. In any event, in both conflicts religion got interjected. The repercussions of this are still playing out in the region and beyond. There was also a concern that after Afghanistan, Pakistan might become the next victim of the dreaded Domino Theory. Moreover, US also wanted to check the religious influence emanating from Iran to spread any further. That apprehension continues to bedevil the region.
While a lot is heard about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, most accounts fail to mention the Iranian Revolution that started almost simultaneously. The Khomeini-led rebellion effectively transformed the nature of pro-American regime and this change has impacted the politics of the Islamic world to this day. Only a year later, in 1980, Iran-Iraq war commenced and lasted until 1988, almost up to the time when Soviets started to withdraw from Afghanistan.
During this phase, while Iran was moving out from the American influence, Pakistan was getting fully embedded into it. The nation helped facilitate the jihad against the Soviets with assistance of the Arabs and US. The role of Pakistan in the Iran-Iraq war, however, was based more on maintaining a delicate balance.
Pakistan went out of its way in helping to protect the Gulf states against the Iranian threat, and according to some estimates, Zia-ul-Haq placed close to 40,000 military personnel in Saudi Arabia for security and training purposes. This, however, did not occur at the cost of Iran. Reportedly, Pakistan also supplied weapons to Iran, and both neighbours supported the Afghan jihad, albeit different factions.
The global powers were playing a similar game. For example, while Russians were intermittently supplying weapons to Iraq, the Iran-Contra affair proved that US was also equipping the Iranians. Iraq had earlier broken relations with US over the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, which were not restored until 1986. Nonetheless, shady dealing had continued between Saddam and the US.
What ended the Iran-Iraq war, according to many analysts, was the increased volatility of the sea-lanes, plus a fear that Iran was beginning to have an upper hand in the conflict. This would have had reverberations throughout the Middle East, including Afghanistan and Pakistan.
While Saddam’s decision to invade Iran in 1980 is believed to be a miscalculation, he also feared that a strong religious Iran would disturb the Shia-Sunni balance of Iraq. Saddam repeated his misjudgment when he invaded Kuwait in August 1990, but was met with a different response than his earlier mistake. Ever since Iraq has come under American-led intervention twice, and despite all past attempts to contain Iran, its sway has grown. In the end, it was the US that disturbed the ethnic balance of Iraq and Afghanistan. And, at the same time, the fear of Iran has helped in moving the Arabs even closer to US and Pakistan.
In this sense, there is continuity in the western policy of both propping Iran’s influence, and at the same time preventing it from becoming a dominant power in the Middle East. In Afghanistan, this has translated into checking any single player, whether Iran or Pakistan, to overshadow. And, lately Indian influence has been introduced as a balancing factor.
This historical context only raises the importance of Pakistan-Iran ties. While US lost Iran in 1979, the importance of Pakistan has only increased. 1979 proved to be a crucial year as far as Pakistan’s relations with Iran are concerned. With the introduction of religion in both the Iranian Revolution and Afghan jihad, secularism took a backseat. To this date, the two events have transformed and divided the politics of the region and also resulted in the birth of Al-Qaeda.
Between the period of 1947 to 1971, Pakistan and Iran enjoyed very close ties. In both 1965 and 1971 wars against India, Iran supported Pakistan diplomatically, militarily and financially. The country also offered military equipment, training and intelligence to Pakistan in quashing the Baloch insurgency in mid 70s.
Now, almost a decade after 9/11, Pakistan-Iran ties stand at a crucial juncture, as do the US-Pakistan ties. President Obama’s reelection presents a hope that he may now take a different approach towards Iran. If an alternative route is indeed chosen, there is an opportunity for tremendous regional cooperation and economic boom, and the vision for the ‘New Silk Road’ can really blossom. There remain apprehensions that Russia and China may benefit more from this boom than the Europeans and the Americans.
However, if fear plays a major role, it would bring even more conflict and bust. The new sanctions connected to the Iran Freedom and Counter Proliferation Act (IFCPA) are expected to go into effect from July 2013. Under the provisions of this act, US would impose sanctions against any entity conducting energy, shipping and ship building dealings, and port operations with Iran. Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project and the development of Chabahar port are most likely to be impacted by the new sanctions.
Such acts will impede regional cooperation and will hurt the economies of Afghanistan, India and Pakistan. Moreover, they will challenge President Obama’s claim made during his inaugural address that ‘A decade of war is now ending,’ and that ‘We (Americans), the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war’.
As these choices loom on the horizon, Pakistan may end up invoking a paradigm it has consistently followed in its foreign policy; good ties with US should not be at the cost of friendly neighbours and elements.
The writer is chief analyst at PoliTact, a Washington based futurist advisory firm (www.PoliTact.com and http:twitter.com/politact) and can be reached at [email protected]