Iranian mourners gather around coffins of Revolutionary Guards during their funeral in the city of Isfahan, February 16, 2019. Photo: AFP
There is a certain tragic irony in commanders of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) reading the riot act to Pakistan for the attack last month in Sistan Baluchistan province, which killed 27 people. The anxiety in Tehran that Jaish al-Adl, which claimed responsibility for the bombing, is merely a cat’s paw of Iran’s adversaries will probably not be easily allayed given the fierce geopolitical rivalries playing out in the Middle East from Lebanon to Yemen.
But as a country that has used proxy wars, and even outright terrorism, to target its perceived foes and dissidents for the last 40 years, Iran certainly knows a thing or two about the tactic. The suicide attack that targeted the bus carrying IRGC personnel should in fact have opened the eyes of all regional actors, including Iran and Pakistan, to the danger of blowback from an overt or covert policy of stirring the pot in foreign countries and maintaining “plausible deniability”.
Pakistan has termed Iran’s suggestions it allows Jaish al-Adl fighters to operate freely within its border as “baseless and completely false”. For a country that already has enough fence-mending to do with its eastern neighbor, it would seem the last thing Pakistan can afford at this juncture is a showdown with Iran. In any case, Jaish al-Adl, which says it seeks greater rights and better living conditions for ethnic minority Baluchis, has both motive and opportunity to attack members of Iran’s elite security force in a restive area that lies on a major opium-trafficking route.
An image released by the Fars news agency shows the wreckage of the IRGC bus. Photo: AFP
Even so, Iran ought to be relieved to know that much of the world, including the Arab countries it regards as it adversaries, has no illusions about the gravity of the threat posed by terrorism and proxy wars to a rules-based international order. Last month’s alarming developments in the Indian subcontinent have further underscored the world’s extremely low threshold of tolerance for those tactics, whose abettors capitalize on genuine local grievances and political discontent to inflame situations, divide communities, and eventually ignite conflicts.
Undoubtedly, the international attention captured by recent India-Pakistan tensions was to a large extent due to the fact that both countries are nuclear powers. But the truth is neither country can realistically afford to fight even a conventional war given the daunting development challenges that confront their governments. Indeed, the crisis that erupted over an Indian military strike deep inside Pakistan and the downing of an Indian fighter jet on the Pakistani side of the Line of Control has shown that, as a general rule, it is better perhaps to let politics be a continuation of war by other means than the converse.
That being said, in the context of the Middle East it would be disingenuous to suggest Iran has a monopoly on proxy fights and military adventurism. Syria is the biggest example of the tragedy that can befall a country when neighbors and major powers do not hesitate to exploit its internal divisions to expand their influence. The same goes, to a lesser degree, for Iraq, where the introduction of democracy and a multi-party political system has not proved everything it was cracked up to be, thanks mainly to Tehran’s deep entanglements and Iraqi politicians’ failure to get their act together.
The misfortunes of the Kurds of Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran are yet another case in point. The Kurds arguably have the most clear-eyed perspective of the Middle East’s prejudices and animosities, to say nothing of their sobering consequences. But bereft of a state or military of their own, they have little protection from the depredations of authoritarian rulers and barbarian invasion.
All of this begs the question as to whether the grim lessons of Syria and Iraq, especially the mass crimes of the Islamic State group against the Yezidis and Kurds, will ever convince the Middle East’s many sectarian forces and paramilitary groups of the follies of proxy war and religious radicalism. If recent history is any guide, there is alas little room for optimism.
The generals, politicians and militia commanders who specialize in fomenting unrest in foreign countries usually have their eyes set not on the Nobel Peace Prize but geopolitical and ideological victories. Unless they experience the pain of military defeats, economic pressure or coercive diplomacy, they have little incentive to change course, much less to become votaries of peace and reconciliation. Or so the theory of realpolitik goes.
A less skeptical approach would be to interpret the kerfuffle in Iran over the brief resignation of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as a welcome sign of dissension within the regime over the deep state’s determination to engage in the very activities that Tehran loudly calls on other countries to eschew. It appears Zarif was not informed that Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad would visit Tehran to hold a meeting with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the IRGC Quds Force, responsible for operations outside Iran’s borders.
What is slightly more encouraging than the resignation drama in Tehran is a report in Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper that authorities intend to show tangible progress within two months on their commitments to the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF) “to curb terror financing and money laundering risks to the global financial system”. According to Dawn, the “achievement of 27 targets under a 10-point action plan has now become a top priority” for Pakistan’s government, which needs to cool tensions not just with India and Iran but also Afghanistan.
The security situation in Sistan Baluchistan, or northeastern Syria or Kashmir is probably unlikely to improve any time soon, but hope springs eternal that, some day, good sense and sanity will prevail.
Arnab Neil Sengupta is an independent journalist and commentator on the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.