Pulwama diplomacy loses way in labyrinthine plots

(Prime Minister Modi & dignitaries at Ardh Kumbh Mela, Prayagraj, Feb 24, 2019)

By deputing the Sindhi-speaking Hindu MP belonging to Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, Ramesh Kumar Vankwani to India, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan signalled a desire for de-escalation of tension with India.  It followed two other signals — takeover of the Hqs of Jaish-e-Mohammed in Bahawalpur by the authorities last week and Pakistan’s acquiescence over the OIC’s maiden invite to India to attend its summit in Abu Dhabi. 

Vankwani met PM Modi, EAM Sushma Swaraj and junior minister VK Singh, a former army chief. Vankwani’s face pops up in Modi’s photo-op with VIPs at the Ardh Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj, standing one heartbeat away. 

Modi has since exhorted Imran Khan to jointly fight terrorism. Modi disclosed that he had asked Imran Khan in his congratulatory phone call last year to fight together against terrorism. Modi added, ”Mr. Khan told me that he was the son of a Pathan and was pledged to do what he said… It is time to test his words.” In diplomatese, Modi’s remark hangs in the air somewhere between a taunt and a coy invite to tango. 

Meanwhile, Vankwani disclosed, “I told the Indian Foreign Minister that in Pakistan it is ‘Captain’s’ (Imran Khan’s) government now. He is a Pathan and he does what he says. We assure you that no Pakistani institution is involved in Pulwama attack. If India provides evidence, we will facilitate the investigation.” No doubt, Modi found the Pathan metaphor too irresistible to be wasted. 

An agonising period now begins. The ball is in the court of the Pathan “captain”. But it’s a “win-win” for Modi — he’s free to keep talking about a war option to avenge Pulwama while also pushing the opposition into a Hamletian dilemma, ‘To politicise Pulwama, or not to politicise.’ 

Modi government’s handling of the Pulwama terror strike on February 14 (in which 40 Indian paramilitary personnel were killed) and Tehran’s handling of a strikingly similar fedayeen attack just the previous day on February 13 (in which Iranian 17 soldiers were killed) make a study in contrast. Three things stand out. 

First, Tehran is indeed hanging tough on Pakistan and even ratcheted up the pressure on Thursday with the commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Gen. Qassem Soleimani threatening Pakistan. 

When Soleimani who oversees Iranian strategies in theatres such as Iraq and Syria appears at centre stage, it means Tehran’s estimation that the Pakistani menace will have to be dealt with on the ground.      

Evidently, Tehran does not expect any change in Pakistani behaviour. Tehran’s initial hopes on Imran Khan have dissipated. It estimates that despite Imran Khan’s carefully cultivated self-image as a nationalist, Pakistan will remain a rentier state. 

Second, stemming from the above, the Saudis have, typically, thrown money at Islamabad and expects Imran Khan to be at their command. Since Saudi Arabia is a lynchpin in the US-Israeli project to destroy Iran, Tehran has no illusions what all this adds up to.

On the contrary, when it comes to Modi, Saudi Arabia is acting as a buffer to insulate Pakistan. Saudi Arabia says it may invest up to $100 billion in the Indian economy and in the meanwhile the Saudi Aramco is also holding discussions with Mukesh Ambani for a lucrative business partnership. Quite obviously, Modi knows he cannot spoil the party. 

Interestingly, Shireen Hunter, a prominent author and Research Professor at the Foreign Service School at Georgetown University in Washington, does not rule out that the Pulwama attack also would have had an Iran angle to it. To quote Prof. Hunter, 

“Yet, given the fact that (Saudi Crown Prince) MbS has said that he will try to reduce India-Pakistan tensions, there might even be a Saudi angle to the Kashmir (Pulwama) attack. Perhaps Saudi Arabia wants to discourage India from cooperating with Iran, especially since  preventing the development of the Chabahar port adds another link to Iran’s chain of economic strangulation. During his visit, MbS promised to invest $ 100 billion in India. Such a substantial investment could seriously cool New Delhi’s enthusiasm for cooperation with Tehran.” 

Third, Delhi is yet to come up with any hard evidence regarding Pulwama attack. Arguably, whatever evidence os Pakistani complicity existed would also have been destroyed by the security operation on an alleged JeM hideout near Pulwama on February 16. The Iranians, on the contrary, are able to specifically name Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, having nabbed two Pakistani nationals involved in the fedayeen attack. 

Suffice today, Saudi Arabia has inserted itself into Pakistan’s current discord with both Iran and India. It leverages Islamabad’s policies to move in a direction aimed at destabilising Iran. And it baits Modi (and Mukesh Ambani) with investment offers to encourage Delhi to give up any dalliance with Tehran as well as restrain from hostile acts against Pakistan. 

It is in the above backdrop that the OIC’s overture to India needs to be understood. Without doubt, OIC decisions invariably bear the Saudi imprimatur. The OIC overture enjoys Saudi blessing and was made after consultations with Pakistan and conveyed through the UAE. The Saudi-Emirati-Pakistani intentions merit careful analysis. 

Simply put, India is being “engaged” constructively by two inveterate enemies of Iran — Saudi Arabia and the UAE — who have an enduring reputation as sponsors of terrorism and are Pakistan’s mentors. The Saudi reputation is well-known, but the UAE stands below the radar. 

Read here two incisive pieces recently by LobLog (which focuses on the Middle East), profiling the UAE —  The Dark Side Of The UAE by Elmar Mamedov, an analyst at European Parliament, and Is The United Arab Emirates Really Our Friend? by William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy think tank in Washington, DC.