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Pakistan in a Difficult Spot Amid Escalating Iran-Israel Tensions

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Pakistan in a Difficult Spot Amid Escalating Iran-Israel Tensions

The government cannot afford to annoy Western countries, whose support it needs for loans. But the Pakistani public is angry with Israel.

Pakistan in a Difficult Spot Amid Escalating Iran-Israel Tensions

Supporters of the Pakistani religious party, Jamaat-e-Islami, take part in a rally against Israeli airstrikes and to show solidarity with Palestinian people living in Gaza, in Karachi, Pakistan, Mar. 31, 2024.

Credit: AP Photo/Fareed Khan

On April 13, Iran launched hundreds of drones and missiles against Israel. The air raid was unprecedented; it was Iran’s first direct attack on Israel.

The Iranian strikes followed Israel’s attack on Iran’s diplomatic compound in Damascus, Syria, earlier this month, which killed several high-ranking Iranian military officials.

The tit-for-tat strikes have raised concerns over the possibility of the Israel-Hamas war expanding in the region. According to reports, the Israeli government is deliberating on ways to retaliate against Iran. Its retaliation could open the door for further escalation, as Tehran has threatened to respond violently to any more attacks on its territory or interests.

Pakistani policymakers are worried that a direct military confrontation between Iran and Israel would lead to a wider regional conflict that is likely to have consequences for the country. They have adopted a cautious approach.

The Pakistan Foreign Office had described the Israeli strikes on the Iranian diplomatic mission in Syria as a “major escalation” in an already unstable region. Following the Iranian retaliation, instead of going on a tirade about seeking action against Israel as it would have in the past, Pakistan has called for restraint and stressed the need for diplomacy to stabilize the situation.

“It is now critically urgent to stabilize the situation and restore peace,” the Foreign Office said in a statement following Iran’s attack. “We urge complete restraint from all parties and a shift toward de-escalation.”

Pakistan’s push for de-escalation indicates that it is worried about the consequences of the conflict in its neighborhood. The timing of the confrontation could not have been worse for Islamabad.

Pakistan has been in the grip of political and economic instability for years. And it is only of late that it is seeing a return to political stability, after a new government took charge in March.

Pakistan is hoping to secure another longer-term loan package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and is eyeing major investments from its Gulf partners, particularly Saudi Arabia. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi is expected to visit Pakistan later this month in order to strengthen bilateral economic cooperation. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan is already in Pakistan to reiterate his nation’s economic pledges.

It is important to note that the Foreign Office statement does not reflect public sentiment on the ground. Pakistanis are generally against Israel, and they took to the streets to celebrate Iran’s attack on Israel. This occurred even though only a few weeks previously, Iran and Pakistan were at loggerheads over the presence of militants in border regions, which resulted in air strikes on each other’s territory.

Talk shows and mainstream television networks were crowded with hosts and guests applauding Iran’s bravery in defying Israel and inviting government representatives to share their thoughts on the situation. They cited exaggerated accounts of Israel’s military losses as a result of the Iranian attack.

Not only is Pakistan’s public opinion supportive of Iran’s military action against Israel, but also a section even advocates for Pakistani military participation in the conflict directly. This sentiment stems from Israel’s resistance to the creation of a separate state for Palestinians and decades of anti-Israel indoctrination of Pakistanis.

Pakistan refuses to acknowledge Israel as a country and has long called for the creation of a Palestinian state. In the past, Pakistan’s position on Iran’s conflict with Israel has been more in line with Tehran’s position.

The Pakistani government has likely toned down its response to the Israel-Iran conflict to deflect unwarranted pressure from Western countries had Pakistan taken a more assertive posture supportive of Iranian aggression. This would have in turn undermined  Pakistan’s efforts to improve ties with the United States and its chances of striking another deal with the IMF and other foreign lenders.

Additionally, as a nuclear-armed Pakistan is concerned over the likelihood of Israeli strikes near its borders.

A possible military confrontation between Iran and Israel puts Pakistan in a difficult position. In the coming days, Pakistan will be closely monitoring what transpires between Iran and Israel.