Mending the Fence with Iran
In the wake of Taliban
occupation of northern Afghan town of Mazar-e-Sharif in summer 1998, relations
between Iran and Pakistan had further deteriorated.
In the course of their attack on and capture
more than eight thousand Afghans of Uzbek ethnicity and Shia faith were
put to sword by the Taliban. The treatment of the Shias of western Afghanistan
during the capture of Herat, another important north - western town, by
the Taliban evoked deep resentment of the Iranians. Iran - Taliban relations
came under severe strain so much so that Iran had to mobilise its army
along Iran-Afghan border. UN Secretary General appealed to both to maintain
Iran has more than once protested to Islamabad
for meddling in Afghan affairs in a way that its implications affect the
foreign policy of regional powers.
Pakistanís military ruler had many compulsions
to visit Teheran on 8-9 December 1999 and assure Iranian authorities that
his government would not like further deterioration in its relations with
Teheran. He met with the President Mr. Khatami although the latter had
cancelled all his appointments owing to his indisposition.
By and large, the visit of the Pakistani military
ruler and his meeting with Khatami did not receive the coverage in Iranian
press the way it should have. Its opinion at the best remained cautious
and at worst anti-Pakistan.
Pakistani press quoted the Foreign Minister, Abdus
Sattar saying that the two leaders agreed on the imperative of setting
up a "broad-based, representative and multi-ethnic government" in Afghanistan.
This indirectly meant accepting the Iranian viewpoint. But the crucial
question is whether this type of arrangement for the governance in Kabul
is acceptable to the Taliban? We know that the Taliban have already rejected
any suggestion of sharing power with the Northern Alliance leadership.
They have made it clear to the UN representative Lakhdar Brahimi. How does,
then, General Musharrafís plan fit in the overall political chemistry of
the region and of Afghanistan?
Obviously, Islamabad will pursue a policy in Afghanistan
that suits its interests notwithstanding what would be the fallout on Pak-Iran
relations. Iran-Pakistan rivalry in the region goes beyond Afghanistan.
Its epicentre is actually Central Asia where Pakistan subtly confronts
Iran in a number of areas, trade and commerce, strategic planning, regional
diplomacy, socio-cultural thrust and military strategy.
Islamabad has a more pressing compulsion to seek
the friendly hand of Iran. In the post Soviet political scenario in the
region, India, Russia and Iran seem to be coming closer in framing response
to strategic imperatives in the region. Each country has its interests
and areas have been identified on which these interests could converge.
Central Asian republics are fighting with their back to the wall to disallow
the growth and spread of Islamic fundamentalism in its crudest form. This
is also the perception of India and Russia. The rise of Taliban has compelled
Teheran to dovetail its political posturing in a way that it neither becomes
an outcast of sorts among the OIC members nor endorses Islamabadís overt
and covert support to Taliban. All that General Musharraf tried to do in
Teheran was to wean away Iran from this posturing.
One of the irritants that lately cropped up in
Iranís otherwise cordial relations with Pakistan was the latter's denial
of permitting Iran to lay the gas and oil pipeline to India via Pakistan.
Saner elements in Pakistan have not approved General Musharrafís statement
that he would not allow the Central Asian gas and pipeline to reach India
via Pakistan and the he would see it is terminated in Pakistan only.
This runs counter to the plans of the Americans.
The American giant Oil Company Unocal has already invested in Turkmen gas
field of Daulatabad. Its assumption was that once entire Afghanistan including
the Panjsheer valley of General Masud fell to the Taliban, it would pave
the way for the oil cartel to bring the pipeline to India and perhaps further
Since Iranís relations with the US are not cordial
for known historical reasons, Islamabad would like to forestall the Unocal
plan by mending the fence with Iran and thwarting the American interests.
Persuading Teheran to accept Islamabadís suggestion of terminating Iranian
oil and gas pipeline in Pakistan and not further eastward could do this.
At least this arrangement could be made till the Taliban overrun northern
areas of Panjsheer valley.
It is also clear that Islamabad would move to
ensure termination of Iranís aid to the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan.
According to available reports, Russia, Iran and India are the three countries
that provide assistance to the Northern Alliance regime. General Musharraf
also tried to soften Iran in this particular matter.
With all said and done, the crucial question is
whether authorities in Islamabad have begun to understand the impact of
the backlash of their Afghan policy. Drug smuggling on a large scale, exacerbation
of sectarian violence, mushroom growth of fundamentalist seminaries openly
imparting training in arms and subversion in the name of jihad, disruption
of law and order to the extent that Pakistan is called a state without
a law, and the ouster of democratic dispensation by military rule, are
to name only some of the stark realities looking into the eyes of Pakistani
General. Never in the history of nations has any military regime ever been
able to surmount problems of this magnitude.