The year 1979 struck the global status-quo hard. There were tremors that seemed mild but had deep reverberations. Iran changed hands from a steady US ally to its new Islamist owners who soon turned into US-haters. “Death to America” was the new chant. The stability of the Cold War order was shaken.
Afghanistan went through a quick cycle of changes in governments between the Parchamis, Khalaqis, and others. Always under the USSR’s shadow for proximity, the “others” became a concern. That irked the USSR sufficiently to march into Afghanistan. One retreat forced by the Ayatollahs in Iran became that all-important chink for the USSR to impose another geopolitical paradigm on the US. The established order was under a challenge and it was neither stable nor in order.
Further and even more consequential changes came in 1980. The US reportedly encouraged Iraq’s Sunni but secular-minded Saddam Hussein to take on the Ayatollahs lest they stirred unrest for the Shia majority under him. Saddam complied. Thus began the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq War which ultimately led to the use of prohibited chemical weapons by Iraq. Unbeknownst to him, this was to later become a trigger for a Western coalition’s attack on Iraq. Both Iran and Iraq suffered irrecoverably. This was the first case of fratricidal wars between Muslims in the modern era. Not that they hadn’t fought before, just that this carried a sprinkling of geopolitics for flavour.
Iran, which had had its military shaped by the US under the Shah, suddenly turned into an enemy and had to be neutralised before the same military power could now turn on the US. Through the Iran-Iraq War, it was denuded of its immense potency. Iraq which came out a relative winner suffered on other counts. Saddam Hussein turned into a cult-figure of a saviour and hardened his manner of governance. Iraq weakened in the economy because of the war and needed an immediate fillip. The US offered a hand.
Reports suggest that the then US ambassador to Iraq promised to turn a blind eye if Saddam ventured into Kuwait to take over some oil-fields which had been an issue between the two for some time. Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait found a quick reprisal by the US invasion of Iraq which began over two phases: first in 1990-91 when Iraq’s Republican Guards — the core of Iraq’s military strength — was weakened sufficiently by the US, and then in 2003 when another offensive against Iraq finally eliminated Saddam and completed the American takeover of Iraq. Not only Iran but Iraq too was denuded in capability and capacity, the two Muslim nations already having prepared the grounds of their decimation.
Iran has recovered some of its strength and attained formidability in the Gulf causing sufficient concern to Israel and its Arab opponents. The US indirectly began circumscribing Iran’s resurgence through regional conflicts abetting incremental attrition: Israel entered war with Hezbollah in Lebanon and frequently targets Hamas in Gaza; Iraq a Shia state, post Saddam, has failed to regain its balance and is now much closer to Iran because of religious affinity; Syria has been under relentless war with the US, Russia, Turkey, and Iran along with their affiliates pursuing competitive interests. Syria’s Shiite regime — another Iran ally — thus remains under persistent strife and conflict. Yemen and Iran itself complete the circle of engagement to wither Iran’s influence and its potential to challenge Israel and the West. And it isn’t caving in.
Turkey in Syria has taken on the Kurds as the US extricates itself, removing the shield sheltering the Kurds. That’s another blue-on-blue. Iran rose from the ashes. Iraq hasn’t. Turkey and Syria are in another confrontation which will further ruin the capacity they still hold after years of war.
Back to 1979. Simultaneously began the American push-back in Afghanistan against the Soviets to which Pakistan became a willing conduit. Afghanistan became a battleground and by design or default, Pakistan remained a silly affiliate. Forty years down Afghanistan remains a battleground as does Pakistan though with reduced intensity. It is only now that Pakistan may have found relative reprieve. As the war fatigue finally overwhelms all and after incinerating what lay within its reach there seems a ray of hope that peace, even of the dead, maybe on the anvil. Pakistan was lucky to escape greater harm. Was it deliberately pushed into this melee of destruction? Maybe, but it was greatly more foolish on our part to be cavalier about it.
That is till now. With Kashmir aroused and the eastern border near-active with Indian belligerence and irrational saber-rattling and Afghanistan finally on the mend despite spasmodic susceptibility, there is a clearly evolving and present danger of Iran too now being engulfed into direct conflict — lighting fire to what had till now been Pakistan’s relatively pacific border. Pakistan has held well over two fronts on the Afghan and Indian border but further sub-division of its resource and focus — if Iran too is sucked into the war vortex — will seriously challenge Pakistan’s ability to withstand simultaneous pressure of war from all sides. It will be a struggle to come out unscathed on the other side of these conflicts. What cost it may accrue is anybody’s guess.
A most recent explanation of the alleged Iranian attack on Saudi oil facilities recounts the unmatched accuracy of the weapons used by drones and cruise missiles — in the order of one-metre of their intended aim-points. This is not to be casually dismissed. Laser-guidance in terminal phases of the weapon-flight enables a one-metre precision (this because of what is called the designator jitter. Hence the one-metre jitter.) What can be more revealing is in wherefrom such targeting was undertaken? Space-based? Buddy-lasing, or self-lacing? Laser-targeting augmented by other designation methods add to the lethality of the weapons in play these days.
Could Iran have reached such levels of technological development? If so, it remains a revelation. Else there are only a few nations with such refined technological capacity who develop and market such capabilities to customers of their choice. Iran couldn’t be one of the — seller or buyer. It was a popular advertisement in Western aviation literature to proclaim “a-bomb-through-your window” capability which indeed is as accurate as it used to be claimed. Subsequent wars have proven these claims.
Whoever attacked the Saudi oil-fields when it was preparing for a historic launch of the IPO of its flagship, Aramco, clearly was goading Saudi Arabia to respond to the provocation. Saudi Arabia already on the defensive in Yemen can hardly get into another war, far bigger and consequential. The relatively prosperous Gulf States will only be sucked into the inferno as willing or unwilling collateral, and the entire Muslim world could be up in flames save those few distanced away in the extremes of Africa and Asia. I wish Imran Khan luck in trying to keep both Iran and Saudi Arabia away from war. It is good for Pakistan and the Muslim world if this tinder-box can be left alone.
Published in The Express Tribune,