DAWN - Opinion; February 8, 2006

February 08, 2006

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Iran: the crisis worsens

By Najmuddin A. Shaikh


BY a vote of 27 to three with five abstentions the International Atomic Energy Agency board has approved a resolution to report Iran’s nuclear programme to the UN Security Council. One Muslim country, Syria, voted against the resolution, three Muslim countries, Indonesia, Algeria and Libya, abstained while Egypt, a prize catch for the US-EU sponsors of the resolution, voted for the resolution.

The resolution was passed in the face of strong opposition from the IAEA’s director-general, Mr ElBaradei, who argued that the proper time for “reporting” or “referring” the Iran dossier to the UN Security Council would be after the scheduled March 6 meeting of the IAEA meeting at which the director-general was to have presented his final report on Iran and the details of the extent to which he had, with Iranian cooperation, been able to clarify the unresolved issues on the nature of Iran’s nuclear programme. So far the IAEA has not said that there is any evidence to establish that Iran’s nuclear programme has a military dimension.

The Americans and the EU have used the issue of restarting the plant in Isfahan for the gasification of uranium and the more recent removal of seals from “research facilities” at the uranium enrichment complex at Natanz to justify their push for laying the ground for Security Council action against Iran. The truth of the matter, however, is that according to the IAEA’s own findings the Iranians have not mastered the technique of converting yellow cake uranium into gas.

The view of IAEA experts is that the product from Isfahan is not of a quality that can be fed into centrifuges for enrichment. On enrichment the IAEA seems fairly clear that the Iranians have yet to acquire anything beyond the basic know-how and are many years away from the capacity to enrich uranium to the 90 per cent required for nuclear weapons.

These findings are in part responsible for the assessment by western intelligence agencies that Iran is a decade away from acquiring nuclear weapon capability. In effect, therefore, the removal of seals from the Natanz facility represent very little in practical terms even while in political terms it could be interpreted as a sign of defiance to the international community by Iran’s new leader whose unfortunate confrontational stance lends grist to the propaganda mills of the West.

The point is that there was no reason why, if a solution were being sought, a more patient approach could not have been adopted. There was certainly no reason to push for an immediate IAEA resolution when the scheduled meeting of the IAEA was only a month away.

President Ahmadinejad’s views on the creation of Israel at the cost of the Palestinian people means nothing in practical terms. Iran by itself (or even with other possible forces) does not pose a threat to Israel. His call for the destruction of Israel would be dismissed by all rational analysts, as no more than bluster and should have been dismissed as such rather than being used as a launching pad for the current campaign.

I would go further and suggest that were there to be a more rational analysis the far more frightening statements are those of US Vice-President Dick Cheney suggesting that Israel with its awesome airpower and advanced weapon platforms could take out Iran’s nuclear facilities and leave the world to clean up the debris. In the same vein, and more recently, was acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s assertion that Iran would pay “a very heavy price” for resuming full-scale uranium enrichment. Israel has the capability to wreak enormous damage on identified Iranian nuclear sites and while it could not, as its raid on the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq proved, bring to an end Iran’s nuclear programme it could certainly bring fresh turmoil to a troubled part of the world.

The Iranians have reacted as the world knew they would. The Iranian foreign minister had pointed out earlier that the Iranian Majlis had passed a bill requiring the Iranian government to stop implementing the Additional Protocol that Iran had concluded (but that was not ratified) with the IAEA if the Iran dossier was sent to the UN Security Council. It was, therefore, expected that Iran would throw out the IAEA inspectors who were in Iran doing investigations not covered by the access Iran was bound to provide under the NPT.

This means that ElBaradei will not be able to complete the inquiries he wished to make before submitting his final report on Iran to the board. He will then have to say that he cannot certify that Iran’s nuclear programme is entirely peaceful. The fact that he will not be able to say that there is conclusive evidence of the Iranian programme having a military dimension will not matter.

This, of course, is exactly what the Americans or at least the unreformed neo-conservatives in Washington want. But is this what the EU, and on another plane, the Russians and the Chinese want? Is this what the world wants? Everyone, including those who are justifiably irate about “western double standards”, is in agreement that adding to the number of nuclear weapon capable states is not in the interest of global peace. The question is whether this is the best way of moving towards the goal of ensuring that Iran does not acquire either the know-how or the equipment that could give it this capability. Certainly it is not.

The Iranian people, for whom the American president frequently expresses concern, will rally around the very leaders who are said to be persecuting them and denying them the right to elect their own rulers. The leaders will then have the legitimacy that is now denied to them by some sections of world opinion. They will rally around because they genuinely believe that the Iranian nation, and not President Ahmadinejad or the Ayatollah Khamenei, is being denied its rightful place in the comity of nations.

Outside Iran many in the Third World and thoughtful observers in the more developed nations will ask questions about whether the EU offer of incentives was what it should have been if the West was serious about offering carrots rather than sticks to dissuade Iran from pursuing its alleged nuclear ambitions. They will ask what the Americans — the principal source of Iran’s security concerns — put on the table, and the answer will be “crumbs”.

What is truly remarkable is that the so-called free press in the West has gone along with the notion that it is Iran which broke off the negotiations with the EU, with only a few analysts suggesting that the incentives were meagre and that in any case what Iran quite rightly needed was security assurances from the United States and a release of the Iranian funds that have been frozen by the United States since 1979.

It is, of course, possible to say that the Iranians should have been more patient and should have sought these assurances on the negotiating table while maintaining a freeze on their nuclear activities. But the West knew very well that the new Iranian leader, inexperienced in international affairs and full of revolutionary zeal, could not possibly take that path. If a peaceful outcome was sought this reality should have been taken into account. It was after all a reality created by a democratic election even if the quality of the democracy was questionable.

Let us also not forget that despite the tough rhetoric the Iranians were looking for a way out. If the reports in the Iranian press are to be relied upon it seems, according to the hard-line Kayhan newspaper, that the Iranians submitted a six-point offer which promised to give guarantees for a peaceful nuclear programme; sending the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Agreement, which grants the UN further monitoring capabilities, to parliament for ratification; agreeing to uphold the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; ending enrichment activities as such; continuing talks with western European powers about Iran’s nuclear programme for two more years; and accepting the Russian plan for uranium enrichment in Russia rather than Iran.

I have not seen anything from the IAEA confirming that such an offer has been received but if the toughest supporter of conservatives in Iran suggests some such offer surely those seeking a peaceful solution should pause and consider whether Iran can be pushed towards formally making such an offer or if it has been made to consider it seriously.

Where do we go now? The Russian proposal under which the Iranians would ship their gasified uranium to Russia for enrichment in plants that the Iranians would pay for is apparently dead. The Iranian foreign office has said that Iranian officials will attend a meeting with the Russians scheduled for February 16 but it was also made clear that the negotiations there must take account of the steps Iran has already taken.

Mr ElBaradei’s report to the IAEA board on March 6 will clearly not be one that offers Iran a clean bill on its nuclear activities. The matter will proceed to the UN Security Council and mild sanctions will be imposed such as a ban on the travel of Iranian representatives or further restrictions on exports to Iran. The Russians and the Chinese may go along with something mild and will push for the resumption of talks with Iran. But will they succeed? This depends on what the American intent is. Currently it appears that the Americans are not prepared to be more accommodating or to take account of the new and unwelcome reality.

The oil markets have reacted already with prices climbing upwards in fearful anticipation of a disruption of supplies from the fourth largest oil exporter. The uncertainties in the Middle East caused by the Hamas victory in Palestine, the turmoil in the Muslim world created by the sacrilegious cartoons first published in September in Denmark and now reproduced in other parts of Europe at this particularly sensitive time makes it almost certain that even if the US feels it has scored a coup by getting the support of Muslim Egypt and non-aligned India there will be support for Iran as a Muslim country under siege, not perhaps at the government level but at the level of the common man in Muslim countries.

It is interesting in this context that the only concession in the resolution to the strongly held sentiment in the Muslim world that the Iran imbroglio was a classic example of western double standards was the inclusion in the resolution, after much debate and wrangling, of a paragraph in the preamble “Recognizing that a solution to the Iranian issue would contribute to global non-proliferation efforts and to realizing the objective of a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction, including their means of delivery”. Its value was immediately made questionable by a briefing by the US undersecretary of state who maintained “this kind of language has been around for years and the US has agreed to variations of this in many other documents before”. In other words that this would not mean that Israel’s nuclear programme would come under additional scrutiny as a means of persuading Iran or as a sequel to an agreement with Iran.

One can only hope that better sense prevails in both Tehran and Washington. The Muslim world is aflame as the recent and continuing crisis on the cartoon issue shows. It does not need another issue where badly buffeted Muslim governments in a bid to stay on the right side of Washington find themselves totally at odds with the sentiment on the streets. Extremism and its corollary, mindless violence, will find new adherents.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.

Welcoming foreign leaders

I THINK it’s time we changed our mode of welcoming foreign heads of state to Pakistan. It’s a nice ceremony that a small boy and girl present bouquets to the distinguished visitor and his lady, but I have never been able to appreciate the gimmick of hundreds of little schoolboys and schoolgirls waving flags and shouting God knows what.

Last week we received the King of Saudi Arabia in Pakistan and the same old drill was gone through. Almost all the little ones had heard of Saudi Arabia for obvious reasons, but sometimes it is the head of state of a European republic, and for all we know the children may be thinking of him as a stranger from the moon. For example what do names like Slovakia and Estonia mean to them?

The express purpose for which I am writing this piece is different. The sad fact is that the scores of little boys and girls had to wait at the airport for more than three hours because the King’s flight was late. In keeping with the known efficiency of our educational bureaucracy, they were given no refreshment during the period. Thank God the weather was pleasant otherwise many of them would have fainted because of heat.

I think the best welcome is a line-up of important personalities of the country and not bureaucrats, and the usual guard of honour presented by a detachment from the armed forces. Of course the diplomatic corps has to be there. What are the children meant to signify? The infantile brain of the nation? When you invite a respected personality to dinner, you do not subject him to a meaningless welcome by children. The children are the last to be presented, and most of the time not at all.

The protocol section of our Foreign Office would do well to set up a committee which should work out befitting arrangements for the welcome of a foreign head of state, and each time the committee should consist of persons who have had some contact with the foreign country concerned. This means extra work for the Foreign Office, but I think the exercise would be worth its while. In any case, children should not be there because it’s like taking recourse to a hackneyed procedure and denotes lack of imagination.

A welcoming ceremony can be alarmingly bizarre. For instance, when President Ayub Khan visited Indonesia in the time of the great Soekarno, the first in the line-up was a group of pretty young girls from Bali Island. Mr Soekarno walked ahead of Ayub and kissed all of them. Then he looked back and found that Ayub had not moved and he asked him to do likewise. Ayub Khan bashfully begged to be excused, so Soekarno said, “It’s all right, Mr President, I’ll kiss them for you,” and did so all over again.

Of course, that is not the sort of thing that happens every day. However, what does happen every day is autocratic heads of state or government almost demanding a ceremonial welcome for themselves whenever they return from what is invariably described as “a highly successful visit” to a friendly country. (You must have noticed that all such visits are highly successful). Then, toadies and sycophants come to the fore and overdo themselves in giving the leader a memorable welcome.

Former prime minister Z.A. Bhutto was addicted to this kind of display. I recall an occasion when he was returning from a visit to some Muslim countries of Asia and Africa. The People’s Party had arranged a truly magnificent welcome. I was later told by an insider that President Fazl-i-Ilahi was preparing to go to the airport when he was told that, as head of the state, he was not required to do so. Chaudhry Sahib was a little afraid of ZAB and wanted an assurance from his adviser that the PM would not mind his absence. He said in Punjabi, “Yaar, marva na daeen,” meaning thereby that he hoped he would not get it in the neck!

In such engineered welcomes the leader deludes himself, or is made to delude himself, that it is his popularity with the people that has given rise to public enthusiasm about his person and “achievements.” When you are surrounded by fawners and yes-men it is not difficult to convince yourself that you really are the cat’s whiskers and that the country has not seen the likes of you in its entire history. We have been seeing this phenomenon in Pakistan from Day One.

During my long term as the head of Punjab’s information department I have had occasions to observe top leaders from very close quarters. There were moments when a leader called upon his admirers to desist from this type of false show, but he was soon out-voted by them. This was when they insisted that it was not just a ceremonial, it was the people’s demand that their “beloved leader” should receive a welcome in keeping with his popularity and the sentiments of the public. It needs a truly great man, or a saint, to resist such pressures. And you will agree that great men and saints are rarely to be found in politics.

But why blame politics for this? A person with a bloated ego is found in every walk of life, and bureaucrats can be equally susceptible to this weakness. Once the head of the autonomous organization where I worked was leaving us on retirement. Believe it or not, he planned his exit himself, to the last minor detail — how, after the farewell speeches and refreshments, and laden with garlands, he would walk out to his car between two rows of his subordinates amid the echo of suitable slogans. He had desired that his wife and children should also be invited to watch this memorable departure.

There are a few among us who leave a lasting impression in the organization we work for; I mean an impression that makes our colleagues and subordinates really mourn our departure; although it is not difficult to create an atmosphere of goodwill and even affection. After all we are all human beings and it is a natural desire that one should be liked for one’s good deeds and behaviour. Unfortunately there are also people with a mean streak who derive pleasure from being cussed and even sadistic. If one cannot keep oneself away from their path, then one can only pray to God for oneself — and for them.

Creating hope for education

By Zubeida Mustafa


THE challenge of providing education to each and every child in Pakistan is so enormous that it is difficult to be hopeful about achieving the Dakar Education Forum’s target of education for all and the millennium development goals that seek to have every child enrolled in school by the year 2015.

More disturbing is the fact that the government, whose responsibility it is to ensure universal primary education, has virtually abdicated its role.

Having contrived the concept of public-private partnership, our rulers have left it to the private sector, mainly in the form of entrepreneurs, NGOs, CBOs and civil society organizations, to fill the vacuum so created.

It is said that nearly a third of the children who are attending school in Pakistan today are in private sector institutions. The measure of inaccessibility may be gauged from the fact that according to The State of the World’s Children Report, 2006, the net primary school enrolment ratio is 56 per cent. The drop-out rate is acknowledged officially to be 50 per cent. That would explain the low literacy rate in the country — it is said to be 49 per cent though the government claims a higher figure. It is not just the question of reaching out to the children that has to be addressed but also the issue of quality that must be taken into account.

This massive backlog of illiteracy and low school enrolment has built up over the years. The fact of the matter is that no government in power has cared enough about the education sector to do much about it. Against this backdrop one wonders how much impact can NGOs have? Recognizing the enormity of the task, five organizations — Alif Laila Book Bus Society, Democratic Commission for Human Development, Female Education Trust, Idara-i-Taleem-o-Aagahi, Sudhaar and the Sindh Education Foundation — came together under the umbrella of the Alliance for Education Development to convene a conference in Lahore last week. Titled ‘Local Governance Texts and Contexts: Perspectives from South Asia’, the moot brought together educationists, thinkers, activists and professionals from across the region to foster a learning and sharing experience.

In a hopeless situation they decided to follow Albert Camus’ counsel, “When there is no hope, one must create hope.” The Lahore conference was designed to be the first step towards setting up a South Asian body for education, which is not anything out of the ordinary considering the fact that there are a number of professional regional bodies that are operating in South Asia. The physicians and surgeons have theirs. The lawyers have theirs and journalists also have one which publishes a journal.

The South Asia Forum for Education Development (Safed) will be designed to build partnerships for learning, promote sharing of experiences and successful strategies, build capacities of ministries and civil society organizations to develop, manage and implement education policies, build linkages, create a data base, and accelerate the implementation of nationally-driven policies.

All this sounds too good, to be true. The conference organizers were so serious and committed about their mission that Baela Raza Jamil of Idara-i-Taleem-o-Aagahi, the convenor, promised to start right away by putting up a website to invite ideas and propositions. Will Safed be able to forge ahead where others have failed? The idea of sharing methodology, research and expertise holds great appeal. But when it actually comes to implementing the policies agreed upon, each country will have to fend for itself. Won’t that leave us in the same morass in which we find ourselves today?

The first hurdle to be crossed might prove to be the government itself which is to be inducted into Safed along with civil society organizations — something unusual and probably the first experiment of its kind. In fact, a representative from the ministry of education would be on the steering committee. If this exercise creates the political will to promote universal education in Pakistan in the powers that be one would welcome the official representation.

If anything the cooperation of the government is vital to making any initiative in the education sector successful. After all, the government is still the owner of the majority of schools in Pakistan, is the employer of large numbers of teachers. Nearly two thirds of school children study in government institutions. But what makes one so pessimistic is the government’s record of the past 50 years.

The key problem of the education sector in Pakistan is the need to universalize primary education. But that is not the only issue. There are other aspects as well and all of them are interrelated. In other words, all the issues have to be addressed simultaneously. Dr Krishna Kumar, director National Council of Educational Research and Training, India, succinctly termed them as the four riddles, namely, relevance, teaching methodology, goal and reform strategy. According to him, education has to be flexible if it is to move away from the “one size fits all” pattern, which in effect becomes a “mechanism for exclusion”.

Only flexibility can meet the diverse needs of the people. Pedagogy must recognize and respect the wealth of local knowledge and vocabulary the child has already acquired by the age of five when he starts school. The aim of education should not just be to give a child information but also to create awareness in him. Finally, it has to be determined how reform is to be introduced given the entrenched attitudes and lack of public faith in long-term sustained and staggered reforms.

Safed will be expected to find feasible solutions to these riddles. Even if it manages to find them, implementation would be the next challenge. It would depend entirely on a number of factors. The main one would revolve around who the financiers of this project would be and whether they would agree with the goals of education formulated by Safed.

The draft terms of reference discussed at the meeting in Lahore spoke of a consortium of development partners financing the forum. The names mentioned were development NGOs, the corporate sector, the Commonwealth Education Fund and the Commonwealth Secretariat. Donors are known for their propensity to guide a project in the direction they want to take it in. Would all of them be supportive of the kind of awareness Dr Krishna Kumar wants education to create? Would the corporate sector want to fund education that teaches the children of their workers all about human rights and labour rights?

Cash and delivery

EHUD OLMERT, Israel’s interim prime minister, was right to approve the transfer of $54 million in tax revenues to the Palestinian Authority — a decision that has at least briefly eased tensions since the mould-breaking victory of the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, in last month’s Palestinian elections.

Under agreements linked to the near-defunct 1993 Oslo accords, Israel is obliged to make such transfers, though it had frozen them since the polls. Now the PA is asking James Wolfensohn, representing international donors, to ensure it has enough cash to pay employees and not impose a collective punishment by withholding funds.

Money matters apart, it is business as usual. On Monday, an Israeli soldier was shot at a West Bank checkpoint. On Sunday an Israeli civilian was stabbed to death on a bus, while three members of the even more extreme Islamic Jihad were killed in an Israeli air strike — a grim reminder that violence is the normal context in which politics are conducted by both sides.

Mr Olmert’s decision, taken under US pressure, was billed as an attempt to maintain links with the Palestinian president and PLO leader, Mahmoud Abbas, who has carefully signalled that he will remain in charge of any peace negotiations with Israel despite the now dominant position of Hamas, responsible for some 60 suicide bombings, in the new parliament.

Much comment has focused on the high turnout and democratic mandate produced by the election. But that cannot mean automatic endorsement of policies it might produce. A charm offensive by Hamas suggests the movement is ready to continue its de facto ceasefire, though not to deliver recognition of Israel and accept a two-state solution, as the PLO has long done, and as Egypt and other Arab states, as well as the US and EU, are urging it to do.

— The Guardian, London