Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Middle East & North Africa

POLITICS: Pakistan, Iran Mend Fences over Afghanistan

Nadeem Iqbal

ISLAMABAD, Dec 6 2001 (IPS) - The Taliban’s retreat from Kabul has nudged Pakistan and Iran into ending decade-old “frosty” relations and working to accommodate each other’s strategic and economic interests in Afghanistan.

Last week, at the end of a two-day visit to Islamabad, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi in a joint news conference with his Pakistani counterpart announced that both countries had come closer on the Afghan issue after the removal of the Taliban, and have agreed to help establish a broad-based, multi-ethnic government under U.N. auspices.

Kharrazi said that though it was natural to have minor differences, the major differences on Afghanistan were mostly over and now it was essential to speed up and rebuild ties.

“We have narrowed down our differences in our talks as we see that Pakistan has changed its policy and agreed to play a collective role in reconstruction of Afghanistan,” he said.

Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar immediately added: “The role of Pakistan with regard to the Taliban has been exaggerated as far as its influence with the militia was concerned. The Taliban had rejected Pakistan’s advice on the (destruction of the) Bamiyan statue issue , and then they refused to agree when a Pakistan delegation visited Kandahar and Kabul to pursue them to take a sensible path on the U.N. resolutions.”

He said: “We have now got rid of the shadow of the Taliban. The sun is shining and we will take full advantage of the situation to develop bilateral relations.”

Talking to IPS, a former foreign minister, Sartaj Aziz agreed that the ouster of the Taliban does remove a major irritant between Iran and Pakistan.

But he said there are still some differences over the deployment of multinational forces in Afghanistan as Iran wants the force under the umbrella of the United Nations, but Pakistan is ready to accept one even if it is out of the United Nations.

In truth however, Aziz added: “In the future shaping of things in Afghanistan both countries do not have much role to play.”

“Pakistan has been saying repeatedly that it is for the Afghans to decide about their future. So now the environment is conducive to enhance economic and commercial cooperation,” he explained.

Pervez Iqbal Cheema, president of the Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI) said in an interview that the main difference between Pakistan and Iran was over how to accommodate each other’s interests over Afghanistan. The impression coming out of the recent meetings between visiting Iranian team and Pakistani officials indicates that these differences have been removed to a considerable extent.

“The differences touched their lowest ebb in 1998,” Cheema said, when the Taliban captured the Afghan city of Mazar I Sharif and some Iranian diplomats were killed.

Iran indirectly blamed Pakistan, thinking that it has considerable influence over the Taliban. “But the fact is that Pakistan’s influence over Afghanistan was exaggerated by Indian propaganda, who wants to project Pakistan a fundamentalist state by linking it with Taliban,” Cheema argued.

Of the six countries circling Afghanistan, Pakistan shares the longest 2,450 km border with it, followed by Tajikistan with 1,206 km and Iran with 936 km. Pakistan’s Pashtun population also has strong affinities with majority Pashtun population of Afghanistan.

Pakistan-Iran differences date back to 1988, when the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan and Iran for the first time tried to bring in a Shia political group, Hizbe Wahdat, into power sharing in Kabul.

The Shia sect, a Muslim sect in Afghanistan, is adhered to by the Hazaras, an ethnic minority that the Taliban has been accused of discriminating against and isolating.

Shia Iran, therefore, never recognised the Sunni (sect) and Pashtun Taliban, and instead supported the Northern Alliance.

Another area of disagreement is the route for the laying down of oil and gas pipelines and rail links from the land locked Central Asian republics to the ports of Pakistan or Iran via Afghanistan. Islamabad claims that the Karachi port is nearest link, while Tehran says it is Bander Abbas.

Sectarian killing in Pakistan, which had led to some Iranian diplomats and citizens being killed, had also soured tries.

There are reports that to end the present impasse between Pakistan and the Northern Alliance, Iran’s Kharrazi has been brokering to arrange a meeting between Northern Alliance leader Burhanuddin Rabbani and Pakistan President Gen Pervez Musharraf.

Dr Kharrazi said the role of Rabbani would be determined by the Afghan people themselves, but that if he visited Islamabad it would be good for revival of relations.

The Pakistan foreign office, however, was cautious. The foreign minister said that a number of Afghan dignitaries representing all Afghan groups had contacted Pakistan for a visit, but that Islamabad would decide only after Bonn meeting that ended this week.

Political differences between Iran and Pakistan overshadowed economic cooperation as well.

In the mid-70s Pakistan, Iran and Turkey formed a regional economic bloc. This was expanded in May 1992 and nine countries including Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan and newly independent Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgystan and Azerbaijan formed the Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO), with a population of 300 million.

This aimed to boost economic cooperation, trade and communication links in three important regions of the Asian continent — Central, West and South Asia.

Six summits of the heads of member states have been held but the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan-Iran differences remained stumbling bloc to ECO.

The proposed pipeline project carrying Iranian gas through Pakistan to India also remains a non-starter. But a ray of hope emerged when Kharrazi announced that a joint technical committee would prepare the feasibility study for the Iranian pipeline and suggest to both governments how to move ahead on the project.

The project is only viable if it is extended up to Pakistan’s arch rival India, as Iran stands to make 3.06 dollars per MMBTU (Million British Thermal Units) of gas sold to India but would get only 1.48 dollars if the commodity does not go beyond Pakistan.

Pakistan itself had hoped to earn about 14 billion dollars in 30 years from the project, including eight billion dollars in transit fees, one billion dollars in taxes and five billion dollars in savings.

Said the English-language daily ‘The Nation’ this week: “The two countries have a lot of healing to do. The rigidly sectarian face of Taliban government, viewed by some as a surrogate of Pakistan, was not the only irritant in the relationship. It has been downhill for some time.”

Apart from sectarian violence in Pakistan and rivalry over pipeline plans, it argued, “Pakistan’s going nuclear has been seen by Tehran not entirely as an unmixed blessing. As Tehran moved away from Islamabad, it turned to New Delhi, and that relationship’s development has taken on a momentum of its own, disquieting to Pakistan. The Taliban episode was perhaps the final straw. ”

“However, the diplomatic effort on both sides now appears firmly fixed on the common interests and incentives for change. This bodes well for relations coming back on track,” the paper said.

 
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