To properly consider the possible fallout of Friday's targeted US strike on Qassem Suleimani, of Iran's elite Quds Force, disregard the tub-thumping rhetoric from Washington and the ominous rumblings from Tehran. Listen instead for the sound of silences within disparate countries' statements on the situation.
Consider the responses offered by South Asia’s nuclear-armed neighbours, India and Pakistan.
India, which has vital interests in the Middle East, as well as strong relations with both the US and Iran, issued a 55-word statement. It “noted” in five terse sentences “that a senior Iranian leader has been killed by the US”, that “the increase in tension has alarmed the world”, and called for “restraint”. But the blandly stated Indian position significantly omitted two points. It did not criticise Suleimani and his activities using the extreme terms favoured by American officials and it did not specify who had exacerbated tensions.
Pakistan, which has long had key relationships with some of the main players in the Middle East, offered a slightly longer written reaction. It said it “viewed with deep concern the recent developments in the Middle East, which seriously threaten peace and stability in the region”. It stressed the need to respect “sovereignty”, “territorial integrity”, “the UN Charter” and “international law”, advised against “unilateral actions and use of force” and urged “all parties” to exercise “maximum restraint”. Islamabad left two key things unsaid. Unlike New Delhi, it did not directly refer to Suleimani’s death, preferring to use a euphemism instead, and it did not specify who it was reminding of the need to respect international law.
The silences tell an interesting story of intense concentration as India and Pakistan – as well as many other players – ponder their next move on the geopolitical chessboard. In diplomacy, some things are better left unsaid, to quote Lincoln Chafee, the only Republican in the US Senate to vote against the 2002 authorisation of the use of force in Iraq. What might the lack of candour from New Delhi and Islamabad tell us?
First, that the situation is fluid and fast moving and no one is sure quite what to expect. Donald Tusk, who was president of the European Council until November, probably spoke for many world capitals when he bluntly tweeted: "President Trump's decisions provoke global risks and his intentions remain unclear".
Indeed, the succession of rapid, often contradictory statements and decisions by the Trump administration in the past few days have left a trail of confusion about US foreign policy strategy and objectives. After the drone attack on Suleimani at Baghdad's international airport, US President Donald Trump claimed the assassination was meant to stop a war rather than to start it. But on Sunday, he tweeted a bellicose warning that Iranian retaliation would result in US attacks on 52 Iranian sites "very fast and very hard". For good measure, Mr Trump indicated that Washington's hostility was rooted in events of 40 years ago, which is to say the 52 Americans taken hostage in Tehran in 1979. This raised questions about the US claim that the action against Suleimani was "preventive". As a leading Indian newspaper editorialised, Tehran's surrounding of the US embassy in Baghdad was "a red line for a president whose generation was scarred by the 1979 hostage crisis".
And despite campaigning for the presidency in 2016 on the promise of bringing home US troops and declaring as recently as October: “Now we're getting out (of the Middle East)... Let someone else fight over this long-bloodstained sand”, Mr Trump has just dispatched 3,500 soldiers – one of the largest rapid deployments in decades – to the region.
But there is a second point to note about India and Pakistan’s statements. Both were carefully worded to allow room for manoeuvre; the equivocation reflecting an attempt to assume a neutral posture as the broader region faces disequilibrium. There is a lot at stake and in very different ways for both countries.
India, the world’s third largest consumer of oil, will be concerned about the effects of an escalating crisis on the price and flow of oil. In November, the Middle East accounted for 68 per cent of India’s oil imports, up from 57 per cent the previous month. Sanctions imposed by Mr Trump last January on Venezuelan oil exports have already narrowed India’s options. The second important concern for New Delhi is the roughly 8 million Indian nationals in the Gulf. Any concerns about safety might affect the hefty annual remittances back home of about $40 billion. Oil prices and remittances matter enormously at this point when the Indian economy is under stress.
Third, India is worried about its massive investment in developing the Chabahar port in southeastern Iran, which it sees as a gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia, and a way to bypass Pakistan. On Christmas Eve, Indian foreign minister S Jaishankar was in Iran.
With Pakistan stressing, in the aftermath of the Suleimani strike, the need for an Afghan reconciliation process, India will be watching the evolving US-Iran situation and the drawdown of US forces in Afghanistan for any increased role for Pakistan. It is noteworthy that some of the current Indian debates are highlighting questions posed by American experts on Afghanistan and Pakistan about targeting “the Taliban masters in Pakistan” – allegedly, Pakistani generals and the country’s military intelligence agency ISI – in the same manner as Mr Trump dealt with Suleimani.
Finally, India is keen to maintain its relationship with the US, which has of late provided cover at the UN Security Council for its strike across the Line of Control with Pakistan and for changing the constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir. There is dismay in Delhi at the prospect of Washington now being preoccupied with Iran and the Middle East rather than with challenging China through the Trump administration’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” policy.
Pakistan too is confronted with competing priorities. It has a 909-km border with Iran and the world’s largest Shia population outside of Iran, but also a deep relationship with Saudi Arabia, which provided direct financial aid and morale-boosting assistance in kind at strategic moments. While it bristles at the high-handed unilateralist tone taken by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo after a conversation on Friday with Pakistan's army chief General Qamar Bajwa, Islamabad is anxious not to annoy Washington and to leverage any increase in its perceived utility in Afghanistan.
Truly, silence is one of the languages of diplomacy.