US-Iran Conflict: Brinksmanship Is Dangerous
Osama Rizvi analyses the US-Iran standoff and the threats and opportunities it entails for Pakistan and the region.
The air seems to be infused with phrases like Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum (If you want peace, prepare for war). Warmongering and brinksmanship that seem to be going beyond the brink paint the international relations right now. On 8th January 2020, Iran attacked two Iraqi bases hosting US troops in Erbil and Al-Asad. This came after the world received its first geopolitical shock as the US administration killed General Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force of Iran’s IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps). That Iran will retaliate was expected. There were even rumors last week about an attack on US airbase in Iraq that were later denied. However, this time it is real.
The most significant thing to note in this attack is that unlike in the past, where Iran had used a number of proxies to attack, this time they made sure that the world ascribes this strike with Iran. The reason for this is simple: Iran wants to show that it is they who retaliated and that too openly not through proxies, sending a message to the angered and aggrieved protestors at home. The second notable thing is that despite having the largest ballistic missile arsenal in the Middle Eastern region, Iran fired only 15 BMs and the target itself was quite predictable, within the territory that Iranians control. The US had already warned its military and other personnel and chances are there won’t be any casualties. The media in Iran is, of course, presenting an utterly different picture with more than 80 killings being already reported.
After attacks, Zarif, the Iranian FM, tweeted mentioning towards the end that they don’t seek war or escalation. This is understandable because had they wanted it, there were other targets: such as Israel, Jordan, diplomatic facilities in Iraq or block Straits of Hormuz or disrupt maritime traffic or attack Saudi oil facilities, again.
Trump said that they are assessing the damage and that no US personnel have died. His response will decide the intensity, level, and magnitude of escalation in the Middle East. But how did we get here? First of all, the timing and decision to kill General Soleimani was strategically immature and diplomatically incorrect. Killing a man and losing a country isn’t a good bargain. Secondly, the Iranian deal was going all well but the new administration annulled it (itself a violation of international law) and set forth a series of events that have culminated into where we stand today. Now we have a country that says it will restart its nuclear enrichment program. Trump on his part has threatened to strike cultural sites in Iran if it chooses to retaliate. Iran on its part has threatened to attack Israel and Dubai if Trump responds. Now, this is the perfect recipe for a military escalation that will certainly culminate into an all-out war (heavens forfend!).
What is the solution? Whatever it is, it isn’t simple. Why? Because now the question is less about international relations and more about egos, both national and personal. We might see this escalation cool down as the US administration hasn’t responded militarily to this recent strike since no personnel were killed and might only use economic sanctions for serving its purpose. This can settle the current state of affairs in that it will bring it back in the realm of diplomacy from this frightening domain of hostility and war.
However, recently Canada has accused Iran of downing a plane in Tehran that appears to be hit with by SAM (surface to air) missile. This may set another round of rhetorical altercation between the Iranians and Europeans – the significance of Europe in this game is that it has been somewhat less doubtful of Iran’s intentions when it comes to the JCPOA. They have even plans to design a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) to continue doing business with the country. However, this turn of events might steer Europe in the Trump-camp. We might see Iran going no holds barred on its nuclear program.
Lastly, the repercussions of war, as we all know, wouldn’t only be restricted to Iran, the US or the Middle East. Any conflict of this nature is indeed a prelude to World War.
Pakistan can get into a difficult situation too. There are too many dimensions to cover here in this article. We have a huge Shia population. We are friends with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia which has given us, among other facilities, deferred oil payments (the main component of our import bill). Although China is the future now, US is still one of our largest trading partners. Deliberate on the last few lines of this paragraph and a whole world of alliances, problems, opportunities, and trade-offs open in front of you.
War is never a feasible, sane option. Let’s hope that this recent episode of geopolitical escalation diffuses as others have in the past.
The writer is a freelance journalist. He is an editor at an European digital magazine and a commodity analyst for various media outlets.