China Settles Iran-Pak Row, Gaza Needs Powerful Mediators
High stakes in the restoration of peace is essential
Two contemporary conflicts, the Iran-Pakistan standoff and the Israel-Palestine war over Gaza, illustrate the necessity of having a powerful mediator with high stakes in the restoration of peace in the region to manage or end the conflict.
The Iran-Pakistan conflict, which saw tit-for-tat raids with deaths on both sides, is now moving towards a settlement because there is a powerful mediator, China, with high stakes in peace in the Iran-Pakistan region.
On the contrary, the Israel-Palestinian war is continuing even after more than a hundred days, and the Ukraine-Russian war is on since February 2022 with no end in sight, because these have lacked credible mediators with high stakes.
The US’ officials are shuttling between key Arab capitals and Tel Aviv but with little or no impact on Israel because the United States itself does not seem to have high stakes in peace in the region. The US is in the process of withdrawing from West Asia.
On January 22, the Iranian foreign minister Amir Abdollahian and his Pakistani counterpart, Jalil Abbas Jilani, released a joint statement after a phone conversation. Abdollahian will travel to Pakistan on January 29 at Jilani’s request. Their respective ambassadors will resume their posts by January 26.
China, which has enormous clout in Pakistan and which brokered a deal between sworn enemies Iran and Saudi Arabia recently, is believed to have played a role in the Iran-Pakistan rapprochement.
“For China, the stakes are high and they really can't afford for things to get any worse between Iran and Pakistan,” Abdul Basit, an associate research fellow at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies said.
According to Reid Standish of Radio Free Europe (RFE), China has tens of billions of dollars of investments in Iran and Pakistan and both countries are high-level partners that benefit from Chinese political and economic support.
Following the missile-strike exchange in January, China's Foreign Ministry called for calm and said it would “play a constructive role in cooling down the situation.”
Sari Arho Havren, an associate fellow at London's Royal United Services Institute, told Standish of RFE that, “China has a reputational image at stake where it's presenting itself as the alternative to the United States, even though assumptions about how powerful it really is in the Middle East are now being scrutinised.”
Standish recalls that the Iranian strikes in Pakistan were part of a series of similar attacks launched by Iran that also hit targets in Iraq and Syria. In Pakistan, Tehran said, it was targeting the Sunni separatist group Jaish al-Adl with drones and missiles in Pakistan's South Western Balochistan Province.
Jaish al-Adl operates mostly in Iran's South Eastern Sistan-Baluchistan Province but is also suspected to be in neighbouring Pakistan. The group claimed responsibility for a December 15 attack on a police station in South Eastern Iran that killed 11 officers.
In response, Islamabad said its military conducted air strikes in Sistan-Baluchistan targeting the Baloch Liberation Front and the Baloch Liberation Army, two separatist groups believed to be hiding in Iran.
The exchange of strikes was followed by Pakistan recalling its Ambassador from Iran and blocking Tehran's ambassador to Islamabad from returning to his post.
On January 21, the Counterterrorism Department in Pakistan's South Western Sindh Province announced it had arrested a suspect in a 2019 assassination attempt on a top Pakistani cleric who is a member of the Zainebiyoun Brigade, a militant group allegedly backed by Iran, RFE said.
But since the strikes on each other's territory, Iran and Pakistan have cooled their rhetoric and signalled that they intend to de-escalate, echoing the sentiment through official statements that the neighbours are ‘brotherly countries’ that should pursue dialogue and cooperation.
Former Pakistani diplomat Abdul Basit told RFE that this mood stems largely from the fact that the countries see themselves spread too thin in dealing with a host of pressing foreign and domestic issues.
Tehran has grappled with a series of attacks across the country, including a January 3 twin bombing that killed more than 90 people, and is engaged across the region directly or through groups that it backed such as Yemen's Houthis and Lebanon's Hizbullah.
The tit-for-tat attacks come as Pakistan was embroiled in an economic crisis and was preparing to hold high-stakes elections on February 8. RFE points out.
Many Western experts downplay China’s ability to mediate in conflicts. But Michael Kugelman, the director of the Wilson Center's South Asia Institute, says China's willingness to be a mediator should not be underplayed.
As China's "iron brother," Pakistan has a close partnership with it, with cooperation ranging from economic investment to defence. Pakistan is the largest buyer of Chinese weapons and is also home to the multibillion-dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The CPEC is part of Beijing's efforts to connect itself to the Arabian Sea and build stronger trade networks with the Middle East.
A centre-piece of the CPEC is developing the port of Gwadar in Balochistan, which would strengthen shipping lanes to the region, particularly for energy shipments from Iran.
For Iran, China is a top buyer of sanctioned Iranian oil. Beijing signed a 25-year economic and security agreement with Iran in 2021, RFE points out.
But the Iran-Pakistan cleavage runs deep and it would be wishful thinking to imagine that the gulf would be bridged easily and quickly. There is, first of all, the Shia-Sunni divide, Iran being Shia and Pakistan being Sunni.
And the conflict is taking place along with Balochistan-Iran border which is a disturbed and is secessionist area for both Iran and Pakistan.
Despite the China-brokered deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the two countries could resume their politico-religious conflict again any time. And Pakistan’s being close to Saudi Arabia could be an irritant for Iran.
Therefore, future flare ups in the Iran-Pakistan region cannot be ruled out. Therefore, China has its work cut out. On the Israel-Palestine front, the brutal war continues in the absence of an influential mediator with a huge stake in peace in the area.
The US is in the process of opting out of the Middle East. It is pretending to mediate a ceasefire in Gaza, but its hold over Israel is very tenuous.
The other (behind the scenes) mediators are Qatar and Egypt, but they have no economic or geo-political hold over either Hamas or Israel.
However, the decisive factor may be the high level of casualties suffered by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) without any sign of victory even after 100 days of fighting, and without any deal on the release of the hostages held by Hamas.
The affected Israeli families are now calling for a ceasefire to facilitate the release of their kin. There is now talk of a two or three months’ ceasefire to effect the release of hostages for the release of all Palestinians in Israeli custody.
But the Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, and his Right Wing supporters inside and outside the cabinet, believe that a pause will only rejuvenate Hamas. Netanyahu’s aim is to finish Hamas completely and do away with the concept of a Palestinian State. He is deadly opposed to the Two-State solution.
The Two-State solution to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict envisions an independent State of Palestine alongside the State of Israel, in the region west of the Jordan River.
In the absence of a credible and powerful mediator, the Israel-Palestine conflict over Gaza will have to be settled either by a fight to the finish in the battlefield or within Israel through mass political pressure on Netanyahu to back off from Gaza.