Neutrality difficult but essential

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AS war clouds are thickening over the Gulf putting Pakistan into a risky and difficult position, Islamabad, on Sunday, reaffirmed its resolve not to become a part of any conflict in the region and renewed its offer for mediating in the Middle East crisis. The offer was formally conveyed by Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi during a telephonic conversation with his counterparts from Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey.
The phone call was timely and hopefully it would serve the intended purpose of conveying Pakistan’s neutral stance over the deepening crisis. The Minister also underscored the imperative of avoidance of conflict, exercise of maximum restraint and de-escalation of tension. To further strengthen the impression that both the Government and the Establishment were on the same page on the issue, army spokesman and Director General of the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor declared in categorical terms that Pakistan would not allow its soil to be used against anyone and would continue to play its role in establishing durable peace in the region. In an interview, he asked the nation not to pay heed to rumours on social as well as main media regarding the country’s role in the Middle Eastern situation. The civil and military leadership has done well by clarifying the position and the stance of the country on the issue in clear-cut terms in the backdrop of historical reality when the then leadership unilaterally took the decision of siding with the United States on just one phone call and the consequences of the unwise decision are still being borne by the country. This time too, the US Foreign Secretary’s call to the Army Chief, instead of his civilian counterpart or Prime Minister of Pakistan, and decision of Washington to resume military training programme were interpreted by some analysts as an indication that the country was once again being enticed to become a party in a conflict that Pakistan cannot afford to do. There are already anti-American protests and demonstrations in the length and breadth of the country and their intensity is likely to increase with the passage of time as both the parties are indulging in acts and reactions that are bound to increase the risks of war. One can gauge the dangers from the fact that US President Donald Trump on Sunday stood by his threat to go after Iranian cultural sites, warning of a “major retaliation” if Iran strikes back for the killing of one of its top military commanders.
Targeting of any of the 52 sites that the US describes as ‘cultural’ but in fact most of them have religious significance and connotations for Shiites could spell havoc all over the world and the conflict would become unmanageable for the two sides. One can only lament the US designs as targeting cultural sites with military action is considered a war crime under international law, including a UN Security Council resolution supported by the Trump Administration in 2017 and the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property. Similarly, Tehran too has claimed that it has identified scores of American targets and that of their allies and practical implementation of the threat would drag more and more countries into the conflict. In a related development, Iran has declared that it would no longer abide by any of the limits of its unravelling 2015 nuclear deal with world powers after the US airstrike, ending an accord that blocked Tehran from having enough material to build an atomic weapon. The move would also trigger more concern and raise apprehensions among some regional countries that see a nuclear Iran a threat to their security and survival. The situation in Iraq itself is no more conducive for the United States to continue to maintain its military presence as Iraqi Parliament, angered over drone strike that killed the Iranian General, urged the government to oust thousands of American troops from the country. US installations were also facing new military stresses, with missiles slamming into the Baghdad enclave where the US embassy is located and an airbase north of the capital housing American troops. There is also demand for immediate expulsion of all foreign troops and this could ultimately help stabilize Iraq in the long run. However, there is an urgent need for a diplomatic offensive by influential members of the international community to de-escalate Iran-US tension that could lead to a broader conflict with grave implications for all countries of the globe in general and regional states including Pakistan in particular.