By Syed Haider Raza Mehdi.
The unprecedented threat to Pakistan by Maj. Gen Mohammed Baqeri, the Chief of General Staff of the Iranian Army is a serious one. It has opened another negative chapter in the relationship between the two countries, going back to the Afghanistan civil war of the 90’s.
It was then that both countries found themselves on opposite sides of the Conflict.
Pakistan and Saudi Arabia supporting the predominantly Sunni and pashtun warlords, at that time lead by Gulbadin Hekmatyar and Abdul Rasool Sayyaf, and later the Taliban.
Iran supporting the predominantly non Pashtun, Shia Northern Alliance or United Front, lead by the Lion of Panjshir, Ahmad Shah Massoud, a Tajik Sunni.
The ties further deteriorated when under US and Saudi pressure, Pakistan cut off economic ties with Iran, during the economic sanctions imposed against Iran.
This lead to the cancellation of work on the gas pipeline, the electricity import from Iran and extremely cheap oil offers from a desperate Iran, looking for much needed foreign exchange and economic support and now virtually on its knees.
India observing this geo political shift and waiting in the sidelines, ignored all US sanctions, jumped in and started buying Iranian goods and cheap oil, thereby bolstering a near dead economy.
Their quid pro quo was a “Defence Pact” which Iran willingly signed to ensure Indian purchases. This was a major shift in Iranian foreign policy. As they say. Beggars can’t be choosers. And consequently Pakistan started to eye them with greater suspicion.
Another huge factor was the changing dynamics of Iranian internal politics.
These had now become very polarized between the hard line revolutionary group lead by their current Rahbar Ayatollah Khamenei and fully supported by the IRGC, and now opposed by the emerging and fast growing more liberal segments.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Council, is a 125,000 military force with its own land, sea and airforce, with its Commander reporting directly to the Rahbar, Ayatollah Khamenei and not the President of Iran.
This group comprising the IRGC and the hard line conservatives in Iran, earlier supported the former President Mohammed Ahmedinijad, and hence his highly militant and uncompromising stand against the US and others.
However, the Iranian nation, by now tired of economic sanctions and the consequential unemployment and misery, now voted in a more liberal person as President, the current incumbent, Hassan Rouhani. It was then that serious talks started between the US and Iran on the nuclear issue leading to the agreement.
The point person in all this was their current foreign minister Javed Zarif, who recently visited Pakistan and met PM Nawaz Sharif and Gen. Bajwa.
The conservative clergy, the IRGC and the conservative segment actively opposed this engagement between the US and Iran and moved to scuttle the talks and the nuclear talks and deal with the US.
Ayatollah Khamenei frequently gave hard line statements against the USA, hoping to give the USA cold feet and to back off. He did it cleverly so as not to also show a clear divide between himself and President Rouhani, but enough to tell the Americans, that he was still master and keep them unhinged and unsure.
But the Obama administration lead by John Kerry, the Secretary of State, who had developed a strong personal relationship with the Iranian foreign minister Zarif, ploughed on, finally resulting in the deal.
During the talks there was a near successful sabotage by the IRGC when they captured a US naval vessel, and aired very humiliating pictures of US military personnel sitting on the deck of their ship with hands up.
Zarif was able to convince John Kerry that this was not sanctioned by the President and the incident passed without too much damage.
With the deal, Iranian sanctions were loosened, the US administration developing better ties with Iran. Along with that we saw a cooling of their relations with Saudi Arabia, especially in the context of support to Assad and the fight against Daesh.
In this, we also saw an emerging perspective in US policy, more aligned to the Iranian perspective that the bigger threat to the Region was not Assad but Daesh and the Saudi funding finding it’s way to Daesh and AL Qaeda and their proxies under the garb of “rebel forces”, who were in essence, AL Qaeda and their proxies.
Consequently Saudi Arabia embarked independantly to thwart Iran’s growing influence, by launching it’s ill planned, poorly implemented Yemen campaign, which to date has caused 10,000 civilian casualties and with silent facilitation by UAE, established very close ties with Israel, against their common enemy, Iran.
Two things changed this. Trump’s election and the forthcoming Presidential elections in Iran.
Trump has rolled back the USA’s, Iran outreach most starkly manifested by his first overseas visit to Saudi Arabia. This change has emboldened the twenty something Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Saman to ratchet up the rhetoric against Iran, even alluding to a military conflict.
This change has given the conservatives in Iran, especially the IRGC, the opportunity to say to the electorate, “Didn’t we tell you not to trust the US. And look at what the Saudis are now saying?”
Consequently two things by Pakistan further reinforced the conservatives perspective that Saudi belligerence was now also being actively supported by Pakistan.
First was Gen. Raheel Sharif’s acceptance of the IMAFT role, which really is nothing but a Saudi wolf, in “Ummah” clothes.
The second was the killing of 10 Iranian border guards by hard core Wahabi sectarian terrorist groups operating from Pakistani soil in Balochistan.
Clearly the Pakistani government or Army was not involved, directly or indirectly in this heinous attack. But clearly it was done at the behest and under orders from forces or countries wanting to drive an even greater wedge, than already exists, between Pakistan and Iran.
Who these countries are leaves very little to the imagination.
So now the final act of the threat to Pakistan by Maj. Gen. Mohammed Baqeri.
Gen. Baqeri is an IRGC General, now posted to the Iranian Army as its Chief of General Staff and belongs to the hard line anti Rouhani, anti Zarif camp.
His threat immediately following Javed Zarif’s visit to Pakistan was aimed to scuttle and sabotage Zarif’s and President Rouhani’s attempts to come closer to Pakistan, especially given Trump’s election, Raheel’s joining the Saudis and the threats from Mohammed Bin Salman.
It was also a message to their hard line electoral constituency to vote against President Rouhani’s second term re election.
This in my opinion, explains, Maj. Gen. Baqeri’s statement, especially the fact that it came just two days after Zarif had visited Pakistan.
All this bodes for very difficult times ahead for us.
Pakistan must take decisions in their own selfish National interests. The Saudis are undergoing an “authoritarian meltdown”. There is serious infighting amongst the Royal family. The barbarians are not just at the gates but also inside Saudi Arabia. The Saudi meltdown is not a question of “if” but “when”.
US interests in the Region are very transactional and short tern.
Iran is a neighbour, whether we like it or not.
The choices are evident!