Evolving Iran Saga:The worst may be behind us

Iqbal Khan

Trump’s hype against Iran has essentially turned out to be a case of over reach.  At best it could suck-in America into another open-ended war, with no defined boundaries; and at worst it could lead to major global level energy crisis if Iran decided to block Strait of Hormuz. Yes, in both cases Iran, as a State would suffer major devastation.

Worst may be behind us as America has toned down its objectives by declaring that it no longer aims at a regime change in Iran. And Iran has also indicated willingness to talk if sanctions are lifted. Apparently common ground has been found between the US and Iran, for the diplomacy to work, and the two side may soon revert back to back channel engagement. Earlier, the US military had cited what it sees as a “credible threat” of potential attack by Iran to deploy hundreds of troops to the region, in addition to Patriot missiles, bombers and the accelerated movement of a carrier strike group. And Iran had said the US is engaging in “psychological warfare,” called the US military presence “a target” rather than a threat and said it will not allow its oil exports to be halted.

A Revolutionary Guards commander said the security of the Strait of Hormuz, an oil shipping route, was linked to Iran being able to export its oil. “Major General Gholamali Rashid said that talking about security and stability in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz is not possible without considering the interests of the Iranian nation, including the export of oil.” Iran has threatened to disrupt oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz if the United States tries to strangle Tehran’s economy by halting its oil exports through increased sanctions.

Acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan has presented an updated military plan to President Donald Trump’s administration that envisions sending up to 120,000 troops to the Middle East, should Iran attack American forces or accelerate work on nuclear weapons, the New York Times reported on May 27. Several plans were detailed, the NYT said, and “the uppermost option called for deploying 120,000 troops, which would take weeks or months to complete.”

While in Japan, President Trump commented that “we are looking for no nuclear weapons.” “It [Iran] has a chance to be a great country, with the same leadership,” “I’m not looking to hurt Iran at all.” In a rejoinder, Iranian Vice President EshaqJahangiri commented that his country was not allowed to pursue the development of nuclear weapon as this was banned by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

American strategic calculus has it that deterrence measures being used by the Pentagon – sending aircraft and ships to the region – would be enough to stave off a major conflict with Iran. “So we have to stay in the Middle East, but you’ve got to turn down the temperature and the demand signal,” said Elbridge Colby, who led the Pentagon’s development of the National Defence Strategy. In January 2018, the US military had put China and Russia at the center of a new national defence strategy, shifting priorities after more than a decade and a half of focusing on the fight against Islamist militants. On his first day as acting Defence Secretary, Shanahan told civilian leaders of the US military to focus on “China, China, China.”  And that escalating tension with Iran could impair that focus; and a period of protracted tensions could set it back. “The greatest way to kill the National Defence Strategy and its focus on long-term competition and preparing for the possibility of conflict with China and Russia is to start another war in the Middle East,” said Mara Karlin, a former Pentagon official.

Yet! Trump may resort to brother Modi’sBalakot like stupidity of violating Iranian air space in an attempt to inflict humiliation on Iranian regime. How would Iran react and where?, is a billion dollar question, because unlike Pakistan-India air force equation, Iranian Air Force is no match to the US aerospace power, so it may have evolved a strategy to respond in a different way and at a different location.

PM Imran has warned against war in region. Pakistan has taken a principled decision of not picking sides in Iran-US tussle. The regional tension and war are not in anyone’s interest. Tension between the US and Iran is a matter of concern as “a minor mistake can become a cause of a bigger loss”.  Any conflict could have negative implications for the entire region, including Pakistan, therefore, we need to evolve a clear strategy for such eventuality.”

Analysts opine that any serious conflict between Iran and the US would test the diplomatic skills of Pakistan, which has close ties with Iran and Saudi Arabia. Pakistan has good relations with all countries in the Middle East and Iran and it doesn’t want its relations damaged with any country.

Region cannot afford any other conflict and Pakistan has genuine stakes for peace and stability on its border with Iran as it is implementing multibillion dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project- the mouthpiece of which indeed is Balochistan and Gwadar. If anything happens along the border with Iran, this will really adversely affect the progress on the mega project. In addition, we are also faced with a volatile situation on the western border and are making efforts to secure it. Any other conflict in the region will only hamper those efforts. Pakistan has also always advocated for upholding the international agreement on the Iranian nuclear program which in fact is a guarantee to peace and stability but regrettably the US President unilaterally withdrew from it.