Many challenges have arisen for the region and the world from growing tensions between the US and Iran after the assassination of Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani in a drone attack and subsequent missile attacks by Iran on two US military bases in Iraq. As fears grow of a full-blown war, Pakistan ponders to save itself from taking sides to protect its integrity and economy.
Prime Minister Imran Khan has said Pakistan is ready to play a role in peace, but would not be part of any war. In a statement, he said he had asked Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi to visit Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States and hold meetings with his counterparts to defuse tension. Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa has also expressed Pakistan’s commitment that it would not pick sides in any ensuing military conflict in the region. “Pakistan will not become party to anyone or anything but would be a partner of peace and peace alone,” Pakistan’s military spokesperson Major General Asif Ghafoor quoted Prime Minister Imran Khan and Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa as saying. “We will not allow our soil to be used against anyone,” he told a news channel. However, Pakistan will be under intense pressure to maintain its neutral posture if the tension escalates and other regional countries, especially Saudi Arabia, are also involved in it.
Experts say the consequences of General Soleimani’s death for the region could be serious. US President Donald Trump said he had ordered the attack to stop a war, not start one. He described Soleimani as the world’s number one terrorist and a monster, who was responsible for many American deaths and planning many more. Military experts fear Iran can attack US bases, embassies or ships in the Middle East and US allies in the region, like Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Some analysts fear attacks on US soil after security was stepped in many cities. They say Iran will not take the killing of Soleimani lying down as he wasn’t just a top military commander, but viewed by many as the second most powerful figure in the country after Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. He was the driving force behind Iran’s expanding influence in the Middle East.
Questions are also being raised in the US after tension escalated with Iran, amid warnings that it has brought the two sides closer to all-out war. Democrats have criticised US President Donald Trump for failing to consult Congress before carrying out such a serious attack. They are also asking if there is a wider strategy here; is the Trump administration ready for the consequences? Questions are also being asked about the timing of the attack, as Trump is under pressure domestically after facing an impeachment trial in the Senate in the coming weeks and of course the prospect of re-election in the coming months. In 2011, Trump had claimed Barack Obama would start a war with Iran to win re-election. Some of President Trump’s critics are now accusing him of doing just that. Analysts say if this is the case, it is a risky strategy. Wars can help to boost approval ratings but only in the short term. Prolonged conflicts resulting in high numbers of American deaths quickly become unpopular. Trump had promised to end wars in the Middle East, to pull US soldiers out of conflict zones and not deploy more. In the contrary, the Pentagon announced plans to send up to 3,500 additional troops to the Middle East.
Analysts also fear inflation will jump and emerging economies would face a balance of payment crisis in the wake of growing tensions between Iran and the US. Oil will bear the brunt if a US-Iran war breaks out. More importantly, global economic economy could spiral out of control. It is estimated that a US-Iran war could shave 0.5 per cent or more off global GDP, mainly due to a collapse in Iran’s economy but also due to the impact from a surge in oil prices.
It will also be a challenge for Pakistan to protect its domestic, political and economic interests in the wake of growing tensions in the Middle East. Experts say Pakistan cannot afford to act as a silent spectator in the conflict and will have to play a role in creating solutions as the country’s economic condition is not good and it heavily depends on remittances by expatriates and energy requirements from the Middle East. At the same time, Pakistan is not in a position to take sides in the conflict.
Some experts say the world is not heading towards new normal, instead it has almost moved back to old times. They compare the current situation with the 1913 circumstances when the First World War was about to start. Many people may not have heard of Qasem Soleimani before his death, but his name could soon become forever associated with a major turning point in a dangerous conflict, they warn.
In case of a war between the US and Iran, the US could prolong the stay of American troops in Afghanistan, which would have repercussions for Pakistan, forcing it to stay committed to the western front rather than focus on its eastern border with India. In the current chaotic situation, the challenge for the world and Pakistan is to be better prepared for the worst-case scenario.