Pakistan must help prevent an US-Iran war in its own interest
US-Iran hostility, whilst not being a new one, has perhaps never been so close to turning into actual hostilities as today. While Iran’s attack on US bases in Iraq has not led to US retaliation and a de-escalation process is in motion, a direct war between the US and Iran with the US landing its forces in Iran will send destabilizing shock-waves across the whole region, including Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Pakistan, which shares a long border with Iran along its restive province of Balochistan, has every reason to be concerned.
War would not only have a direct impact on the Afghan peace process, possibly delaying it, it will also turn Pakistan’s border with Iran into an extremely unstable one, allowing militant groups to become active and destabilize Balochistan, where a number of significant China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects—most importantly, the Gawadar port project, are located.
An unstable Iran will have an impact on several countries including India and China, forcing Pakistan to divert even more of its scant economic resources to security at a time when it is struggling to energize its stagnant economy and revive the dormant CPEC. Hence Pakistan’s on the going diplomatic initiatives to help defuse tensions, a role that even the White House has acknowledged.
A war between the US and Iran, even if remains a proxy war, would also create a strong possibility of Iran’s activating its connections in Afghanistan and hurting US interests. The spread of instability in Afghanistan will once again create prospects for the remnants of groups like Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TPP) to become active and carry out their foreign-sponsored agenda of spreading terror inside Pakistan.
Most importantly, were Pakistan to become an US ally in any future conflict with Iran, there will be a radicalization of sectarian fault lines in Pakistan. Radicalization of Pakistan’s Shi’ite groups is a distinct possibility. Just as the war in Afghanistan was directly responsible for the radicalization of Pakistan’s Sunni groups, a war in Iran will provide just the necessary context for the largely dormant Shi’ite groups to acquire a militant character.
Whereas South Asia is home to an estimated 36-64 million Shiites, about 25 million are in Pakistan and these have been victims of ‘Sunni terrorism’ in the last decade or so and continue to remain at the receiving end.
This provides an ideal context for Iranians to exploit the dissatisfied sections of Pakistan’s Shi’ite population to spread their ‘revolutionary ideology’ and wage war inside Pakistan. Once this starts, other countries, particularly Pakistan’s rivals on its western and eastern borders, will find in it an opportunity to destabilize Pakistan.
While Iran does not as yet see Pakistan as a ‘battle ground’ against the West, there is no gainsaying that Pakistan’s Shi’ite groups have strong connections with Tehran and Baghdad. In fact, Soleimani’s funeral prayers in Iraq were led by a Pakistani cleric, Ayatollah Bashir Najafi. While Najafi is not known for having strong political connections in Pakistan, it is largely these connections that become politicized in the wake of conflicts.
"Pakistan has a large Shiite population and if Islamabad sides with Washington, it would unleash a sectarian war in the country”, said Hasil Bezenjo, a senator from Balochistan where Hazaras, a Shi’ite sect, have been victims of ruthless targeted killings by ‘Sunni’ radical groups.
Shi’ite activists in Pakistan are already expressing concerns and see Pakistan as a potential US ally in any future war between the US and Iran.
Rashid Rizvi, a Shi’ite activist, reportedly said: "Pakistan is not neutral. If a war breaks out between Iran and the US, Washington would even demand military bases in the country. Pakistani officials have not directly condemned Soleimani's killing, which shows that the country has already sided with Saudi Arabia and the US”.
As a matter of fact, thousands of Shi’ite protesters marched in several Pakistani cities on Sunday to show solidarity with Iran. Some clashed with police in Karachi when they attempted to march on the US Consulate.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, Pakistan was quick to reiterate its neutrality in Middle Eastern matters. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa rebuffed US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s attempt to obtain his support against Iran. Ever since then, Pakistan’s political and military officials have been busy stressing that Pakistan would not allow its territory to be used against Iran.
“We’re clear that Pakistan’s soil will not be used against any other state, and nor will Pakistan become a part of this regional conflict,” Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi told the upper house of parliament in a policy statement.
While Pakistan’s top civilian and military brass are concerned about the use of its territory in the prospective war, the fact of the matter is that Pakistan, in the wake of any future US-Iran war, will have to walk the tight rope not only on the foreign policy front to avoid becoming a US and Saudi pawn, but also on the domestic front to avoid a wholesale radicalization of its 25 million Shi’ites and the prospects of that war, like the Afghan war, being fought in its own cities.
To avoid this, Pakistan needs to avoid an Afghan-war like scenario by actively pushing for a diplomatic solution to the crisis.