The US drone attack that killed Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds Force, took US-Iranian relations to the brink of war with the potential to destabilize the entire Middle East and shake the global economy. Although no casualties resulted from Tehran's retaliatory launch of more than a dozen ballistic missiles at two US military bases in Iraq, the attack took the conflict to another, extremely dangerous level.
To avoid further friction from sparking a broader war, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reached out to various countries that could help de-escalate the situation. Pakistan was one of the first countries he approached after the strike on Soleimani.
Pompeo tweeted Jan. 3, “Pakistan’s Chief of Staff General [Qamar] Bajwa and I spoke today about US defensive action to kill Qassem Soleimani. The Iran regime’s actions in the region are destabilizing and our resolve in protecting American interests, personnel, facilities, and partners will not waver.”
US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper also discussed the crisis with Bajwa, who called on everyone concerned to pursue diplomacy over inflammatory rhetoric. Bajwa’s main concern was to keep the situation in Iran from derailing the Afghan peace process. Pakistan had facilitated negotiations between Washington and the Taliban in December 2018. Ostensibly, a new crisis next door could complicate matters despite the absence of a breakthrough thus far.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan offered to mediate between Tehran and Washington and instructed Bajwa to visit Iran and “contact relevant military leaders to convey a clear message: Pakistan is ready to play its role for peace but it can never again be part of any war.” Stressing the need for de-escalatory measures, Khan planned to send Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi to meet with his counterparts in the United States, Saudi Arabia and Iran as well as Pompeo. Arriving in Tehran Jan. 13, Qureshi presented Pakistan’s perspective to President Hassan Rouhani and stressed the need for a diplomatic solution.
Soon after drone attacks on two Saudi oil facilities in September, Khan and Bajwa visited Tehran to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran, believed by many to have been behind the strikes. Maintaining good relations with both countries requires a delicate balancing act. Amid the current friction between Tehran and Washington, Islamabad wants to remain neutral and steer clear of a regional conflict. Nevertheless, settling the current crisis is in Islamabad’s interest for several reasons.
First, Pakistan faces the prospect of being drawn into the conflict if it stretches on and leads to a proxy war in Afghanistan. Iran has built ties with the Taliban over the past decade, and given that Afghanistan is already destabilized, any retaliation by Tehran on US interests there could be disastrous for the region.
Understandably, even the Afghan government has been urgently encouraging Washington and Tehran to de-escalate. Some credible threats to the United States remain, and Esmail Qaani, Soleimani’s successor as Quds Force commander, vowed at Soleimani’s funeral to “remove America from the region.”
Second, the current scenario could cause a breakdown in the Afghan reconciliation process if Iran starts using its influence. As Qureshi observed, “The crisis will have a negative impact on Afghanistan, and Pakistan’s efforts in this regard could be undone. Some elements, who have been waiting for this [kind of] moment, may try to derail the Afghan peace process.” If a peace deal between the government of President Ashraf Ghani and the Taliban is hindered, it would ultimately delay any plans for a US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Third, in case of war or turmoil in Iran, there could be an influx of refugees to the relatively unstable Pakistani province of Baluchistan. The Pakistani army has been working since early last year to seal the 620 mile border with fencing to keep out militants. Any new emergency could compound Pakistan's security problems.
Finally, although Shiites are a minority in Pakistan, they are the second-largest Shiite population in the world, behind Iranians. Islamabad recognizes Pakistani Shiites’ affinity for Iran and cannot risk sectarian discontent among the population. To maintain peace at home between Sunnis and Shiites, Pakistan gives top priority to nurturing good relations with Iran, even though Islamabad has close relations with Iran’s nemesis Saudi Arabia.
Thus, de-escalating the current US-Iranian crisis is very much in Pakistan’s interest. The current atmosphere of insecurity and latent threat to oil assets in the region is a setback for the entire Middle East.
Iran had announced on Jan. 5 that it will no longer abide by the restrictions on its nuclear program in accordance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which is being nominally kept alive by the remaining signatories — China, Russia, Germany, France and Britain. Negotiating a new nuclear deal remains the best option for de-escalation and restoring stability in the Middle East.