US-Iran confrontation: Implications for Pakistan

Author Name: Maham Shahid Gillani      02 Feb 2020     Regional security/Region

The killing of Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s top commander and head of the Quds Force – a division of Iran’s influential Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), by the US military sparked fears of a perilous war between the two states.

Though such fears have somewhat tapered off, the risk of conflict escalation degenerating into a war between the US and Iran persists.

An armed conflict between the two archrivals would not only have grave strategic, political, and economic repercussions for Iran but would also spell disaster for the entire region. Pakistan— sharing a 909-kilometre-long border with Iran—would be especially susceptible to mayhem towards its west in a variety of ways.

First, the price of international oil would sky-rocket leading to a spike in prices of virtually all commodities in oil-importing developing countries. This would lead to a further rise in inflation and budget deficit in Pakistan, putting downward pressure on the country’s exchange rate. Resultantly, hopes of the much-needed economic recovery would dampen further.

Second, Pakistan is home to one of the biggest Shia populations in the world. This means that a large segment of the people in Pakistan have emotional and religious affiliation with Iran - they visit the country to pay homage to holy shrines and many revere the Iran-based religious clergy. In the event of a war, Pakistan may come under pressure from its Shiite population to pay more than just lip service to the cause of helping a brother Muslim country. On the flip side, some Sunni religio-political groups may directly oppose lending Iran any sort of support—diplomatic, economic or political. This may prove to be detrimental to national cohesion and solidarity by deepening the Sunni-Shia schism and drawing Pakistan into a possible sectarian conflict.

Third, Saudi Arabia and Iran are bitter rivals but both states have maintained close ties with Pakistan and lend the country vital support in different domains. While Tehran condemned New Delhi’s infamous August 5 Kashmir move, KSA regularly provides Pakistan critical financial support whenever the latter faces a balance of payments crisis. Moreover, Saudi Arabia is home to millions of Pakistani workers who send home valuable remittances. Striking a delicate balance in relations between the two adversaries in a bid to avoid antagonising either of them would be an uphill—if not impossible—task for Pakistan if Tehran is drawn into an armed conflict.

Fourth, instability in Iran would not remain confined within its borders. Refugees, arms and drugs can potentially flow from its porous western border to Pakistan, leading to an increase in crime rate and weaponisation of the society while also posing a burden on Islamabad’s fragile heath, education, and housing sectors. It is noteworthy that Pakistan is still grappling with the political, social, and economic implications of the two wars fought in its vicinity – Afghanistan.

Fifth, Pakistan has been heavily investing in the restive Balochistan province during the last two decades for greater peace, stability, and development therein. Gwadar—one of Pakistan’s most important ports—is located in Balochistan and remains the cornerstone of the momentous China-Pakistan Economic Corridor initiative. It can certainly be argued that any long-term success in this context is contingent upon peace and stability in the neighbouring Iran.

Sixth, Islamabad believes that New Delhi uses Iranian territory to pursue aggressive intelligence operations against Pakistan. The presence of Indian spy Kulbashan Yadav in Balochistan can be taken as a case to establish the veracity thereof. Military confrontation between the US and Iran would provide a great opportunity to India to take hostile action against Pakistan from its western border.

Last but not the least, US-Iran war would deflect attention from Kashmir. Modi, in line with his Hindutva ideology, has placed an inhumane curfew in Kashmir and given Indian forces an open hand to employ brute force against unarmed civilians in the recent period. Pakistan has been actively striving to underline the inalienable right of the Kashmiri people to self-determination. Nevertheless, an international conflict involving the US and Iran may prove to be fatal for the Kashmir cause.

In the light of the aforementioned arguments, it can safely be argued that Pakistan would face grave consequences in case of an all-out US-Iran war.

Therefore, the country must continue pressing for peace between the two adversaries, not merely for its own sake but also for peace, stability, and prosperity of the entire region.

–The writer is a researcher at the Centre for Aerospace and Security Studies. She can be reached at cass.thinkers@gmail.com. This article was first published in The Nation newspaper.