Iran's role in the region
By Dr Maqbool Ahmad Bhatty
FOR many Pakistanis, the anti-Pakistan rhetoric coming out of Iran over the past ten weeks has been a source of grave concern. In a recent statement, Qazi Husain Ahmad, the Amir of Jamaat-i-Islami described the current situation between Pakistan and Iran as that of a proxy war in Afghanistan which could turn into something worse unless efforts are made to arrest the decline in their relationship. His own prescription was for a delegation of Ulema to visit both Iran and Afghanistan.
Currently, the greater danger is that of Iran's forces, which are concentrated on the Afghan border, making a move that could unleash a conflict between Iran and Afghanistan. The UN Secretary General's Special Envoy, Mr Lakhdar Brahimi, has been engaged in efforts to defuse the tension, with the participation of an OIC representative. Pakistan is extending full support to this mission, and has also made strenuous efforts to help resolve the problems that arose after the Taliban occupied Mazar-i-Sharif, notably those pertaining to the Iranian personnel in that city, some of whom lost their lives while others were in the custody of the Taliban.
The strong Iranian reaction to the defeat of the factions backed by Tehran, as well as the threatening posture of the forces massed by Iran along the Afghanistan border tend to detract from the fact that Iran's foreign policy since the Islamic revolution has been shaped by considerations of national interest, rather than ideological zeal. Though the Islamic republic leaves little doubt of its concern for Shia causes, its main preoccupation has been the safeguarding of national security in the face of western hostility, frequently backed by conservative Arab regimes in the region.
For Pakistan, the course of its relations with Iran since the Shah's regime was toppled in 1979, has seen many vicissitudes, arising out of developments in the Persian Gulf region. But all the governments in Islamabad, whether military or political, have been cognizant of the need to preserve a relationship with Tehran that reflects the deep historical and cultural ties, as well as the many commonalities of their interests.
Revolutions are called that because they bring about a transformation of established institutions, policies and attitudes, and in this respect the Islamic revolution in Iran was no exception. The ascetic and venerable Imam Khomeini inspired the Iranian masses to rise up against the corruption and exploitation of the Shah's regime at home, and the domination of the country's foreign policy by an America they perceived as being hostile to the Muslim world. In the period immediately after the fall of the Shah, the Iranians tended to take on both the superpowers, whom they described as Big Satan (the US) and the Small Satan (Soviet Union) as well as the monarchical regimes in the Persian Gulf which got together in the Gulf Cooperation Council. Even the Ziaul Haq regime in Pakistan was perceived as being in league with forces hostile to Iran. The siege of the US Embassy in Tehran, and the seizing of US diplomats as hostages produced an alienation with Washington that became more intense during the eight-year Iraq-Iran war, precipitated by aggression by Iraq which received backing of the western powers, as well as of the conservative Arab regimes of the Gulf. Iran suffered damage to its economy and infrastructure estimated at over 650 billion dollars.
Though the western-dominated media and the US government continued to depict the Islamic republic as a "rogue state," which patronises international terrorism, opposes the Middle East peace process, and amasses weapons of mass destruction, the fact emerges from scholarly studies by western analysts that the overall thrust of Iranian foreign policy conforms more to conventional national goals than to any destabilising revolutionary objectives. However, one can perceive the upwelling of traditional Iranian aspirations for a major role to which its elite feels entitled by the richness and antiquity of Iranian culture, and the strategic location of the country.
Geography and history have conferred on Iranians a belief that they are destined to be a major force in their region that lies at the crossroads of West, Central and South Asia. The Iranian empire was a major force in ancient times whose expansion towards Europe was checked by the Greeks. Later Alexander the Great led a foray eastwards across the Middle East towards the lands of the Indus and died in Iran on his way back. The coming of Islam changed Iran, but Persian language and culture retained their individuality and influence. One needs to recall the status the Persian language acquired as the court language of the Mughals and of other Islamic states in the region, as well as of the role and popularity of great writers including Saadi, Hafiz and Maulana Rumi. Even Allama Iqbal wrote the major part of his poetry in Persian.
The Iran of today has made a remarkable recovery from the destruction of the war imposed on it by Iraq, and the visitor to Tehran cannot fail to be impressed by the look of prosperity and progress, which have been achieved despite the sanctions and hostility of the US. The country's population has doubled since the Islamic revolution of 1979, and remarkable strides have been achieved in literacy, and economic self-reliance. The country is not only endowed with rich reserves of oil and gas but also has dynamic agricultural and industrial sectors.
Iranian interaction with its neighbours which was affected by war with Iraq has undergone a change, and the election of President Khatami last year was a reflection of new trends. Even his predecessor, President Rafsanjani, had sought to moderate the role of conservative clergy, and to increase Iranian interaction with major powers in Europe and Asia. Conscious efforts were made by Iran to advance Islamic causes, with strong support to Palestinian rights. Iranian policy was also supportive of Kashmir and reacted to violation of the rights of Muslim minorities in various countries, including India.
The past few years have seen Iranian diplomacy pursue many goals that are shared by Pakistan. One has to recall the role of Iran in the revival of RCD as ECO, which has its headquarters in Tehran. Iran has made significant headway in improving its relations with the Islamic countries around it, and this was reflected in the success of the Islamic Summit held in Tehran in November last year. Iran has also displayed awareness of international concerns in such areas of the global agenda as arms control and environment. It is a signatory of NPT and CTBT, and US allegations of an arms build up are rejected by Tehran, which draws attention to the enormous quantities of western arms being sold to its Arab neighbours, whereas it has had to rely on non-western sources, such as Russia, China and North Korea for defence equipment and technology.
Pakistan's relationship with Iran has always been a vital component of our foreign policy. The only potential cause of differences was eliminated in the 1950s, when a boundary agreement was concluded. Since then, the border with Iran has been a peaceful one, and indeed various projects exist to link up the highways and railway systems of the two countries. A divergence has appeared between them only over Afghanistan. Even here both share the view that the long drawn out civil war in Afghanistan should be ended, and the future set-up in the country should be shaped by the Afghans themselves. The two countries had helped evolve the Peshawar and Islamabad Accords.
As the civil war had continued beyond 1993, with President Rabbani clinging to power he was to hand over to a coalition of various factions, the Taliban rose up in August 1994 with the objective of establishing peace and a system based on the Sharia. The Iranians consider the Taliban as a creation of Pakistan with financial support of Saudi Arabia and the political backing of the US. They have been the main backers of the Northern Alliance that consisted of the factions of Dostum, Rabbani and the Hizbe Wahdat. What they ultimately want to achieve in Afghanistan is perhaps a loose federation in which the factions they back have a decisive influence. However this goes contrary to Afghan traditions under which one faction prevails after an armed struggle.
As the UN envoy conducts his critical mission of ending the confrontation between Iran and Afghanistan, both the people and the government of Pakistan would be anxious to safeguard our historic friendship with Iran. From our side, it is necessary to reaffirm our commitment to not only preserving but to further developing this fraternal connection. There is also need for greater realism in Tehran about the emerging situation in Afghanistan. The Taliban have arisen mainly in response to the war-weariness of the Afghan people and though their roots are in the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan, they have an Islamic, rather than a parochial outlook. As a Taliban spokesman pointed out shortly after the takeover of Mazar-i-Sharif, non-Pashtuns share in the running of the country holding eleven out of 26 provincial governorships, as well as four posts of Cabinet Ministers.
Iran's aspiration to be a major player in the regions of the Persian Gulf, West and Central Asia deserves international recognition. Pakistan should neither act, nor be seen, as a rival still less as an opponent. Efforts need to be made both by Islamabad and Tehran to restore their traditional cordiality as well as their cooperation in the context of ECO and OIC in both of which Iran holds an important place. Whatever influence we have with the Taliban should be used to promote conciliation and peace within Afghanistan which has suffered too long from conflict and confrontation.
Mr Brahimi has made the participation of major ethnic groups a condition for the recognition of the government in Kabul. How this is to be achieved may constitute a challenge for the Taliban who have so far found the factions of the Northern Alliance insisting upon the demilitarisation of Kabul before they participate in parleys for a broad based government. In other words they want to achieve at the conference table what they have lost in the field of battle. Pakistan and Iran need to restore their former rapport and cooperation in the quest for a durable peace in Afghanistan. Both want a stable government in Kabul and the creation of conditions in which the task of reconstructing the country's shattered economy can be taken in hand.
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