By Afrasiab Khattak
Eruption of the West Asian political volcano, though expected due to the political heat accumulating over the last few years due to deepening political rivalries in the region, stunned political observers across the world when it materialised.
The two spectacular terrorist attacks in Tehran last Wednesday that took place simultaneously at the Iranian Parliament and the Tomb of Ayutollah Rohullah Khomeini, the two most important symbols of the Islamic Republic, were earthshaking for many reasons. One, in a decade these were the first major terror attacks inside Iran leading to loss of precious lives in a country that was regarded to be an island of stability (albeit an oppressive and authoritarian one) in an unstable and chaotic region. The Islamic Republic of Iran that represents the rise of a new Persian Empire isn’t immune to the terror problem after all. Two, it seemed quite dramatic coming soon after the public pronouncement of Mohammad bin Salman, Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister, that KSA wouldn’t wait for Iran to bring the war into her territory and she would like to fight it inside Iran. Now the terrorist attack coming so soon after these ominous pronouncements may be pure coincidence but it isn’t possible to detach it from the rhetoric of the Saudi prince. Three, the summits held in Riyadh on 20-21 May provided a backdrop to the Tehran terror attacks that makes it quite easy for the Iranian ruling elites to sell it as a grand international conspiracy against the Islamic Republic. These were the US-Saudi summit, US-Gulf Cooperation Council Summit and Arab-Islamic-US summit. The Arab-Islamic-US summit conference endorsed the so-called Muslim Military Alliance ostensibly formed against terrorism, but which for all practical purposes is an anti-Iran and anti Shia military alliance. Four, the political and physical quarantining of Qatar by KSA, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt just before these attacks had already raised the political temperature to a dangerous level. Any knee jerk reaction by a nervous player can ignite a catastrophic war in West Asia under such volatile conditions.
Before coming to the new configurations, alignments, trends and possible scenarios it would be useful to briefly touch upon the context. The present political map of the Middle East was drawn by the victorious western powers just after the defeat and dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War. The same was retained by and large in the post Second World War political settlement in the region when the British political and military presence was replaced by the US one. The region acquired immense strategic importance during the Cold War as not only the origin of the three most important world religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam but also the largest source of fossil energy on the planet. The Baghdad Pact later renamed the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) epitomised the western vision for the region as an anti-communist front. The perpetual western supported Israeli expansionism kept the region in continuous turmoil. Progressive Arab nationalism represented by Gamal Abdul Nasir and Ba’ath Party in the 6/7 decades of the 20th century faced continued decline after military defeats and western pressure paving ground for the domination of conservative Arab monarchies and sheikhdoms. Iran emerged as an active player, in fact a more assertive one, after the Islamic Revolution of 1979 creating insecurity among Arab monarchies and sheikhdoms. Consequently the sectarian divide between Sunni and Shia Muslims deepened as never before.
The weakening interest and control of western powers in general and the US in particular in the second decade of 20th century led to a psychological political “vacuum” that attracted new activism on the part of regional and international players. Iran and a Turkey, representing the aspirations of the Persian and Ottoman empires jumped at the opportunity. Both supported the so-called Arab Spring as the turmoil generated by the later could create space for their new hegemony. The political and sectarian upheavals in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria created conducive conditions for not only the expansion of the Iranian political influence in these countries but also for her military ingress. Turkey sided with the political forces of Arab Spring and was able to expand her politico military influence from Tunisia to the Arab Gulf. By establishing a military base in Qatar, not even deterred by quarantining of Qatar by the more important Arab countries, Turkey has made clear her interest in the new settlement of the Middle East. It is particularly so as her prospects for joining the European Union aren’t as bright as they looked few years ago. Some ambitious young leaders of Arab monarchies are making an effort to create an “Arab Axis” by creating the Sunni military alliance, but their prospects don’t appear to be very bright. Israel is also, for all practical purposes, an undeclared ally of the Arab monarchies against Iran for obvious reasons.
By inducting her military forces in Syria, Russia has declared her intention to fill the possible vacuum created by the western retreat from the Middle East. After all, West Asia is an important part of the Russian centric Eurasian Heartland that Russia under Putin is so obsessed with. China’s OBOR has elaborate provisions for expanding Chinese influence into West Asia but she would prefer projection of soft power to achieve this goal. Although it isn’t totally oblivious to the strategic imperatives of the situation and is looking forward to using the Gwadar port in the Indian Ocean close to the Gulf for both trade and strategic purposes.
Pakistan is too close to the West Asian political volcano to escape its earthquakes. Deft handling of this complex and explosive situation will require a lot of political wisdom and strategic sagacity. But if past experience is anything to go by, this is the least available characteristic in the military-dominated Pakistani ruling elite. The way the country’s political and military leadership has jumped at the bandwagon of the KSA-led sectarian military alliance in violation of the parliament’s resolution doesn’t augur well for the future of the country in general and Balochistan in particular. The temptation of becoming a front-line-state once again is too strong to be resisted by an army that has been part of big power wars and conflicts in colonial and post-colonial existence. But getting sucked into the West Asian political and military conflict can create hell for Balochistan. The province is already bedeviled by insurgency and military operations, and can become another FATA. Injecting Sunni extremism with Arab money can be tempting but disastrous, opening the floodgates for the internationalisation of the Baloch problem.