By Mihir Sharma
At one level, Iran’s support for Yemen’s Houthi rebels could pass for magnificent statecraft. By supporting militant attacks on Red Sea shipping, Tehran’s mullahs have managed, at minimal cost, to disrupt the global economy and demonstrate that the United States intends to provide security to the region. The relationship underscores how effectively flexible non-state actors can serve the interests of nations that would otherwise have difficulty projecting power in their region.
However, those who live under the sword of the militant also die from it. Imperial powers that become dependent on non-state armed groups tend to end up fighting against them, or against organizations very similar to them. The Americans discovered it in Afghanistan. Over time, as the Romans discovered centuries ago, the representatives could even consume the empire that long supported them.
Today, middle powers like Iran are learning this lesson again. After Tehran-backed militants claimed responsibility for a drone strike in Jordan that killed three US soldiers and wounded 25 others, the country faces the prospect of direct US retaliation that risks leading to in a broader war.
Iran has already avoided a crisis of its own making. The regime will send its foreign minister to Pakistan on Monday to improve relations after the two neighbors exchanged cross-border attacks earlier this month. On January 16, Iran fired missiles and launched drones toward the Pakistani province of Balochistan, targeting a Sunni extremist group called Jaish al-Adl, which it accuses of carrying out terrorist attacks within its borders.
The Iranian attacks came after Islamic State suicide bombers killed nearly 100 people in central Iran in early January. Furious Iranians have launched retaliation in Iraq and Syria, as well as Pakistan, against several militant groups they claim have recently violated their sovereignty and killed their citizens, police and soldiers.
Pakistan responded two days later with attacks apparently targeting two armed groups based in the Iranian province of Sistan and Balochistan: the Balochistan Liberation Army and the Balochistan Liberation Front, which as their names indicate wish to separate Balochistan from Pakistan.
Irony abounds. The Islamic State attack targeted mourners at the grave of Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian general who long oversaw covert operations involving proxy groups such as the Houthis and Hezbollah. Meanwhile, it remains an open question whether Pakistan’s or Iran’s strategists have been the more enthusiastic sponsors of militants and extremists in recent decades.
For the citizens of the various countries victimized by such policies, the fact that the two neighbors turned against each other must seem like a kind of dark justice. Each accuses the other of using Baloch nationalists to destabilize him. Meanwhile, the Baloch (one of the many restive ethnicities of West Asia who have never been granted their own state) will only be further distanced from their colonial-minded masters by tit-for-tat attacks on their soil.
When nations arm extremists, blowback is inevitable. This is as true for middle powers like Iran and Pakistan as it is for the United States. While it may be tempting to allow militants to operate as long as they focus on the strategic rival next door, there is no such thing as “our” terrorists. It is in the nature of extremist militias to go rogue.
The temptation for middle powers to deploy non-state actors as force multipliers will increase. Weaponry is cheap and easily accessible: even poorly organized fighters can cause a lot of damage with drones, improvised explosive devices and electronic warfare. The Houthis have shown how easily basic missiles and small boats can undermine the global economy.
At the same time, any regime inclined to recruit representatives should remember that the first casualty of this type of thinking is respect for sovereignty. Once you turn a blind eye to encampments on your border to destabilize your neighbor, you create a lawless zone where your own sovereignty is questionable. And you’ll probably end up being attacked by fighters based in other camps on this or that side of the same border, if not more directly.
Sovereignty, with all its defects, arose not to oppress small powers but to protect them from a world of constant war that harmed them more than anyone else. The Westphalian system of the 17th century guaranteed Germany’s principalities peace and eventual prosperity after a bloody century in which they had served as a battlefield for militias and mercenaries, pawns in a conflict between superpowers.
Iran and Pakistan should remember that the system they are so willing to violate was designed to protect smaller countries, not prevent them from harming larger ones. Undermining sovereignty helps no one, least of all the middle powers.
Disclaimer: This is a Bloomberg opinion piece and these are the personal opinions of the writer. They do not reflect the opinions of www.business-standard.com or the Business Standard newspaper
First published: January 29, 2024 | 8:34 a.m. IS