Shifting Dynamics in the Middle East: The Role of the US and Implications for Pakistan and South Asia

There has been a geopolitical churn in the Middle East in recent months but the two biggest big bang events occurring over this year are most significant for analyzing the shifting dynamics in the region. First is the US government’s decision to kill Qasim Soleimani and the other is the very recent agreement between Israel and the UAE. These developments could be observed with two vantage points; first, the perception of Washington behind these two engagements, and the other is the implications of these two moves for South Asia including Pakistan.

Starting with the Soleimani killing, the Trump administration has been on a collision course with Iran throughout its time in power and Trump has shown a willingness to be unconventional to change course with long-standing rivals by pursuing conciliatory paths. There has been a hardline approach adopted by Trump administration for pursuing talks or negotiations with Iran, and Trump’s chief advisers, who have included some of the biggest Iran hawks, hated the US civil nuclear deal with Iran and wanted to get out of it. They did not like Obama’s relatively conciliatory policies toward Iran and espoused partisan strategies such as propagation of Iran as an evil empire in the media and society, which have blinded many Americans to the fact that the US and Iran share several interests in South Asia including their support for a peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan.

The point here is that the Obama administration’s desire to try to improve relations with Iran was a game-changer for U.S. diplomacy on many levels but the political class in Washington, particularly republicans and later trump republicans, simply could not tolerate. Therefore, the Trump administration remained compelled to take a hardline position on Iran in order to change course from Obama’s conciliation and to strengthen U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia; a country that Trump has long been quite fond of and experienced a decline during the Obama years. This helps explain in part, at least why the Trump administration made the very bold decision to target Soleimani, someone that the trump administration had and continues to describe as a terrorist in the same category of Osama bin laden or a Baghdadi. The Trump administration certainly understood the risks of targeting him, particularly in terms of the risks of intensifying an already volatile rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran and broader volatility in a region invested with tremendous strategic significance for Washington.

In addition to worsening the US-Iran relations and heightening the volatility in the Middle East, there are few implications on the South Asia region as well. First is the state of affairs in Afghanistan, which is located just across the eastern border of Iran, and it could potentially become a site for reprisals on US interests from Iran’s sponsored terror groups. Although the plan of US troops withdrawal is in process, however, there are still around 8 000 US troops in Afghanistan and this number is greater than any other part of Iran’s wider neighbourhood outside of Kuwait and Qatar. Iran has potential proxy partners in Afghanistan, capable of carrying out strikes on US troops, where one option is the Fatmiyun division of militia mainly comprised of Afghan Shias that Tehran had deployed to Syria to battle the Islamic state. Additionally, the background and the resume of Ismail Khani, Soleimani’s successor and former deputy, underscores the possibility of Iranian reprisals in Afghanistan, as he oversaw Quds Force operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan meaning that he knows the terrain and also have a formation of the Fatmiyun group in the region.

The second implication of the Solemani killing for South Asia is an economic one. The potential for heightened volatility in the Middle East has and continues to threaten Indian and Pakistani interests, both of which have extensive commercial ties to the Middle East and currently, both are suffering from the major economic challenges, which are exacerbated by the pandemic. India and Pakistan are also deeply dependent on energy resources from the Middle East and Islamabad relies heavily on economic support from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Similarly, the Gulf nations are key investment partners for New Delhi and also the Arab Gulf is home to nearly nine million Indian and nearly four million Pakistani workers and they are a critical source of remittances for both nations.

The third implication for South Asia is diplomatic. India and Pakistan, both need to find ways to balance their respective relationships with Washington and Tehran. New Delhi is intent on strengthening a growing defence partnership with the US, even while continuing to pursue a largely commercially focused relationship with Iran that is increasingly undermined by American sanctions on Tehran.

However, in case of Islamabad, the balancing act is more complex because the US-Pakistan relations have enjoyed a bit of a renaissance amid increased cooperation in Afghanistan over the last 18 months over the peace process. Islamabad is keen to maintain that goodwill and hopes that Washington will eventually end its suspension of Pakistani security assistance and expand bilateral trade and investment but Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has sought stronger ties with Tehran as part of an effort to better position Islamabad as a neutral player in the Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry. Riyadh has long been one of Islamabad’s closest allies but it’s a relationship has run into some trouble in recent times amid a spat over Islamabad’s perception that Saudi Arabia is not being sufficiently supportive of the Kashmir issue which is hugely important for Pakistan.

Against the backdrop of escalating US-Iran tensions, the stakes are particularly high for Pakistani diplomacy. Pakistan, of course, shares a frequently volatile border with Iran that experiences periodic cross-border violence perpetrated by Pakistan-based anti-Iran militants. About 20 of Pakistan’s 200 million-strong population is Shia the largest Shia community outside of Iran and Pakistan has security partnerships with both Washington and Riyadh, Tehran’s biggest rivals. Pakistan is at risk of being dragged into two rapidly intensifying rivalries Washington and Tehran, and Tehran and Saudi Arabia, at a time when it is keen to stay out of both.

Second big bang event in the Middle East this year is the recent Israel-UAE deal, and the US being the central character in this deal. Israel has long been a focus a key focus of the Trump administration as it has always been a focus of successive US governments being America’s top ally. While the US-Israel relationship did flounder a little bit in the Obama years, it has been strengthened in the Trump era and in fact, the U.S. relationship with Iran is arguably one of the very few key US bilateral partnerships that have not suffered in the Trump era, including the relationship with India.

Therefore, Israel has remained a focus and the Trump advisors, especially Jared Kushner have had a laser-like focus on Israel from the issue of changing the location of the U.S embassy to pursuing a peace deal with the Palestinians. After the blowback of Trump’s initial policies, he turned its attention to other ways that it could make some big moves with Israel in the region that led to the chain of events that resulted in the Israel UAE deal. Moreover, the Trump administration is keen to have Israel enjoy a more normalized relationship in the Middle East and to help integrate Israel into the Middle East as an effort to stabilize the region and undercut Tehran simultaneously, which has no interest in reconciling with Israel and faces the prospect of several of its Saudi-aligned Arab rivals making peace with Israel.

There are several factors at play driving this development and most of them are more tied to US domestic politics rather than the foreign policy. One factor is the incumbent leadership of US, where its President, Donald Trump wants to project himself as a dealmaker who relishes the art of the deal and desire to sharpen perceptions of him as someone who knows how to get things done and serve U.S interests. In this regard, the Israel deal is just what the doctor ordered. Correspondingly, with the US election in progress, Trump arguably is more vulnerable than he has been at any other point during his presidency and there is a strong incentive to get a deal like this with a hope that few other Arab nations normalize their relations with Israel before the election. This may overstate the interest that an average US voter takes in the foreign affairs but many American citizens, without an exception of the Christian conservatives that are strongly pro-Israel but still there is a strong domestic political motivation that has fueled the US pursuit of this Israel deal.

There is a knock-on effect of this deal for South Asia, specifically on India and Pakistan. In the case of Pakistan, a country that never had formally recognized Israel as a state may face some unwanted and gruelling questions. A debate has been started after the inkling of this new deal that whether Pakistan will follow the suite, but the PM Khan quickly quashed that speculation and reasserted Pakistan’s long-standing position of the two-state solution to which the Palestinians agree.

The Pakistan-Israel relationship is a very complex and very sensitive issue and Islamabad likely prefers that questions about it stay out of the public sphere. Secondly, this deal happening soon after the Soleimani killing throws more fuel on the fire of a raging Saudi Arabia-Iran rivalry. It casts a deep shadow across Pakistan, given its relations with both countries and especially amid the recent Pakistan Saudi Arabia spat over Kashmir and amid the new agreement between Iran and China, which suggests that Islamabad following its Chinese ally’s lead may be tempted to try to educate closer to Iran. Therefore, the UAE-Israel deal can further the Riyadh-Tehran rivalry and gives the Saudis and Iranians greater incentives to try to pressure Pakistan to help them pursue their respective regional interests.

On the other hand, New Delhi has a friendly and growing relationship with Israel and it tends not to be dragged into the Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry because unlike Pakistan it does not have very deep or very poor relations with either country. The rivalry between the region’s two most consequential players will ultimately have an impact on the New Delhi’s economic and diplomatic endeavours in the region. At on end, the UAE-Israel deal risks further undermining India’s already floundering relationship with Iran, which is a key commercial and energy partner for New Delhi until U.S. sanctions in recent years took their toll and began to hamper India’s ability to do business with Iran.

The UAE has already delivered another blow to US-Iran relations and ensures the continuation of harsh US sanctions on Iran, that in recent years have compelled India to scale down its energy imports from Tehran. Compounding all of this, the Iran-China agreement could compel Tehran to invite Beijing instead of New Delhi to develop the Chabahar port in Southern Iran, which was originally part of a wider envisioned transport corridor project involving India, Iran and Afghanistan. Besides, there are indications that India will be pushed out to speak of Chabahar. Iran is losing interest or growing impatient with India due to its deliberately methodical and cautiously approach amid US sanctions on India. Also, there has been a lot of mix reportage about India being dropped out of an envisioned railway projects involving Chahbahar, but both, Iranian and Indian governments rejected the notions. At this point, India remains a part of the Chabahar transport corridor project with Iran and Afghanistan but its future role is certainly in doubt.

The bottom line to conclude is that the solemn killing and the Israel UAE deal are two watershed developments for international relations with far-reaching implications for South Asian states that have major interests and stakes in the Middle East and particularly specifically referring to India and Pakistan.


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Michael Kugelman is the Asia program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia or the Woodrow Wilson international center for scholars in Washington D.c