The Sarajevo moment | Pakistan Today

The Sarajevo moment

  • No one wants a fight


The killing of Iranian commander of the Iranian Guard Corps’ Quds Force, Maj Gen Qasem Soleimani, by a US drone strike, along with the commander of the Khataib Hezbollah militia and deputy chief of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, may prove the world’s Sarajevo moment, as Iran seeks to decide whether or not to go to war, while the USA seeks to decide whether it should meet the Iranian response with the sort of aggression it has shown so far.

In Sarajevo, back in 1914, the events leading up to World War I started with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and the Archduchess Sophie by Gavrilo Princep, a Bosnian Serb separatist. One of the big differences between now and then was that the Great Powers had been preparing themselves for a war for many years, and there had been a succession of war scares in the Balkans. The assassination was treated as just another Balkan war scare, and it took the latter part of the summer of 1914 for Europe to go to war.

One of the major factors was that there were great powers ranged on both sides: Austro-Hungary was itself a great power, and it was allied to Germany; while Serbia was not a great power, France and Russia were, and the UK was linked to France. Turkey came in against Serbia, and on the side of Germany.

This time around, it seems the USA itself is unable to weave together the ‘coalition of the willing’ with which it invaded Iraq twice, and Afghanistan. At the same time, Iran has not been able to mobilise even its neighbours, nor has it been able to turn this into a ‘Muslim cause.’ One of the problems it faces is symbolised by the dilemma Pakistan is supposed to face.

Even if the peace is preserved this time, how many times will it be possible? Though the Iranian attack on US bases may have not caused any damage, President Trump may feel that something must be done. At a time when he is facing an impeachment and a re-election, he can afford to appear weak. The problem is, neither do Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei or President Hasan Rouhani. The rest of the world can only watch, with bated breath

Pakistan is going to stand aloof because it contains a large Shia minority, and it is assumed the killing of General Soleimani would affect it. Already, Pakistanis have seen the government caving in on one occasion to Saudi Arabia, and there is a fear that it might do so again, though at the moment, Saudi Arabia, though certainly a perennial opponent of Iran, has not taken a position against it. However, so close is its relation to the USA that the presumption is that it will be on US side. Saudi Arabia should be, perhaps, for the Arab-Ajami (Iranian) division in Islam dates back to the Arab conquest of Iran in the 7th century. The latest manifestation was the clash between the Ottoman and Safavid Empires. While the Ottomans were Turkish, the Empire consisted of Arab lands. When the Ottomans fell, Iraq was the successor state.

Under the USA, Iraq became part of the Iranian sphere of influence, because its prime ministers all came from Shia parties. Thus the killing is being seen by Iraq as an attack on its sovereignty. Iran had been advancing its footprint in the Middle East, with its backing for Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Assad regime in Syria, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen. It was also the region’s strongest opponent of Israel, and its strongest opponents in the USA were linked to the Zionist lobby.

In all of these interventions, the Iranians found themselves coming up against the Saudis, and behind the USA. The chief Iranian official in all of these was General Soleimani. He has been eliminated. The USA seems to be putting forth a new doctrine, that military commanders thought hostile can be eliminated. The next step would be assassinating ministers and heads of government or state in their capitals.

Perhaps more illustrative of the Trump Doctrine than the US position is that no retaliation should take place. That might explain why the initial Iranian response, on US air bases inside Iraq, seemed designed to cause no casualties or collateral damage. While Iran may have to explain to a highly charged home audience why there were no casualties, it does let it claim that honour is satisfied, and the episode should be put behind both countries.

The main problem with this is that there is a significant Iranian capacity to strike at interests through proxies. US military planners will be unable to relax their guard so long as they remain available. It is also worth noting that General Soleimani prepared them, and the reason being given for killing him is that he was behind an attack that was imminent. His death will have left the capacity to attack in place, for though General Soleimani was a hero of the Iran-Iraq War, that was three decades in the past, and he was not valued for his operational role.

General Soleimani’s killing should send a strong signal to all who think that being on the US side in any conflict is any protection against being attacked by it. General Soleimani spearheaded the fight against ISIS, and played a major role in both Syria and Iraq in fighting it. There is a view that he played a more important role in Syria, where he mobilised forces to protect the Assad regime at the time it was about to cave in. Though he was instrumental in this fight, which put him on the US side, it did not stop them from killing him.

The USA perhaps rightly recognised that his opposition to ISIL was not so much because he opposed terrorism, as because as a Shia he opposed the Caliphate it declared. The Shia opposition to a caliphate does not just go back to the Persian struggle with the Ottoman Caliph, but to the opposition to the Abbasid Caliphate, which was based in Baghdad until its 1257 fall to the Mongols. Thus, only a single-minded devotion to the USA will act as protection. That might explain why the USA still pursues the case of Dr Shakeel Afridi, who helped it kill Osama bin Laden. He has been imprisoned for spying, which illustrates how the national interest constitutes a red line.

Dr Afridi would be the least of Pakistan’s problems. While it is not inclined to join this fight, it cannot very well stay out. Both sides have a strong hold on it, though the US hold seems stronger. The USA has more than enough leverage at the IMF to get it to cancel its current programme, which would cause the knock-on effect of ending the World Bank and ADB indulgence to Pakistan. Then there is the aid it should give at the Financial Action Task Force. If in the middle of the crisis, the FATF was to blacklist Pakistan, the fat would really be in the fire. Then there are the packages given by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. They include deposits with the State Bank, and oil on deferred payment. A withdrawal of those deposits, and a demand for cash for oil shipments, would sink the Pakistani economy.

On the other hand, does Pakistan want to help in a conflict with the country that helped it in its wars with India? Iran has spent ensuing decades growing closer to India, and its port of Chahbahar rivalling Gwadar may well be trotted out as an argument against it. This assassination came at a time when the Islamic world is disunited. Again, the lines are drawn up on Arab-Ajami lines, only this time Turkey, in Ottoman times the standard-bearer of the Arabs, is now in the Ajami camp.

Even if the peace is preserved this time, how many times will it be possible? Though the Iranian attack on US bases may have not caused any damage, President Trump may feel that something must be done. At a time when he is facing an impeachment and a re-election, he cannot afford to appear weak. The problem is, neither can Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei or President Hasan Rouhani. The rest of the world can only watch, with bated breath.

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