Not a matter of alarm yet
IRANIAN President Ahmadinejad’s proud proclamation during a carefully choreographed TV appearance from the holy city of Mashhad that Iran had successfully enriched uranium and had thus joined the nuclear club was an important step in his populist campaign.
Subsequently, other Iranian spokesmen claimed that by the end of 2006 the experimental facility at Natanz would have 3,000 centrifuges, and that after an unspecified length of time the commercial production facility would have 54,000 centrifuges enabling Iran to produce enough low-enriched uranium to fuel the 1,000 MW nuclear power plant under construction at Bushehr.
Predictably, many in the West have greeted the news with expressions of concern and some have even chosen to regard it as the confirmation of fears that Iran now has the capability to manufacture in short order the fissile material needed for nuclear weapons. Everyone has commented on the fact that in proceeding to enrich uranium, albeit in an experimental facility, Iran has acted in defiance of the non-binding presidential statement of the UN Security Council which had called upon Iran to suspend all enrichment work and had asked Mr ElBaradei, the IAEA director general, to report at the end of the month on Iran’s compliance with this demand.
Clearly Mr ElBaradei, who visited Tehran two days after the announcement of successful enrichment and received short shrift from the Iranians, is going to have to report that the Iranians have not complied and this will then raise the question of what the UN Security Council will do next. Both China and Russia have made it clear that they remain opposed to a resort to sanctions that may drive Iran towards withdrawing from the NPT and would certainly push the crisis to a higher plane.
The Chinese have sent an envoy for talks to Tehran and to Moscow where high ranking officials of the permanent members of the UN Security Council are also meeting to consider the next steps. The divisions are clear. China and Russia favour finding a negotiated solution and the Russians have hinted often enough that such a solution could include allowing Iran to continue to pursue small- scale, low-level enrichment under IAEA safeguards while securing a commitment that no commercial scale enrichment will be undertaken.
President Ahmadinejad is rightly proud of what Iranian scientists have been able to achieve but the point the world must bear in mind is that this still leaves Iran very far from acquiring the fissile material or the additional technology needed to construct a nuclear weapon — something that the Iranians vigorously deny wanting in any case. Consider:
First, it has taken the Iranians 21 years and seven years of sporadic experiments in the words of an American scientist to put together a cascade of 164 centrifuges and to produce some degree of enrichment. It is suspected that the 3.5 per cent enrichment claimed may not be even the level required for power generation since there are questions about the quality of the uranium hexafluoride produced in Isfahan plant.
Second, the current accepted estimate is that the Iranians have the parts needed to produce another 1,000 to 2,000 centrifuges. It is highly doubtful that at this time they have the capacity to produce indigenously the many high precision parts that make up even the comparatively simple P-1 centrifuge the Iranians are using. This would suggest that there may be difficulties putting together the 3,000 centrifuges they want to install in the experimental facility by the end of this year. One reputable study estimates that Iran will need at least up to 2008 to assemble 3,000 centrifuges and to arrange them in workable cascades.
This is plausible since the November 2004 IAEA board report stated that prior to the November 22, 2004 suspension, Iran assembled 1,275 centrifuges but has since then verified that only about 30 per cent of the assembled centrifuges are still in good condition. What this means is apparent from the estimate by assistant secretary of state for security and non-proliferation Steven Rademaker, that with a 164 centrifuge cascade, it would take Iran 13.6 years to produce enough HEU for a nuclear weapon.
Third, the gaseous uranium produced in the Isfahan plant was flawed because of the failure to eliminate molybdenum, a metal found in natural uranium, and which can damage the delicate rotors of the high speed centrifuges. We will know if this flaw has since been corrected only after the IAEA submits its report on April 28.
Fourth, the complexity of operating a cascade of centrifuges apparently increases dramatically once the size goes into the sort of figures the Iranians are talking about. These complexities are not easy to overcome even when theoretically they have some set of instructions. And yet a large cascade is necessary. The American official in the state department dealing with non-proliferation said that even a cascade of 3,000 centrifuges would require 271 days to produce the enriched uranium needed for a nuclear weapon while the present 164 unit cascade would take 13.6 years to produce the same quantity.
Fifth, there are suspicions that in 1995 the Iranians did secure some designs and perhaps components for the more sophisticated P-2 centrifuge. B. S. Tahir of the A.Q.Khan network has apparently told interrogators that Iran received more P-2 technology than it has acknowledged. An interview by President Musharraf for the programme ‘Nuclear Jihad’ in which he revealed that A.Q.Khan wanted to visit Zahedan for a “secret purpose” suggests that Iran was benefiting from the network long after the 1995 date on which the Iranians claim contacts with A.Q. Khan were broken off.
Now President Ahmadinejad has claimed that Iran has new technology for enrichment. Clearly, the IAEA will need to pursue its inquiries on this score but there still seems to be no hard evidence that the Iranians have the know-how to be able to manufacture the high precision rotors needed for this model.
Sixth, having enriched uranium is only the first step towards manufacturing a nuclear weapon. The task of converting gaseous enriched uranium into metal, machining such metal into a hemisphere to form the core of a nuclear weapon and then designing the precise shape and content of the conventional material that would need to be imploded to set off the chain reaction in the core is not easy even when detailed plans are available.
Finally, there are numerous reports suggesting that apart from the nuclear activities disclosed by Iran and verified by the IAEA, other nuclear research and development projects carried out by the Iranian military could be far more advanced than the known programmes. But there is no hard evidence of this and to many people wary of the Iraq WMD issue this is not the premise on which the world should proceed. Satellite pictures show that Iran is reinforcing the Natanz facilities underground halls where the centrifuge cascades are to be installed but this itself indicates that Natanz is the main venue of Iranian nuclear activity.
Given these facts one cannot easily dismiss as exaggeration or complacency the assertion by the head of the Russian Atomic Energy commission that there is no question of Iran being able to engage in industrial scale uranium enrichment particularly since the Russians have been deeply involved in the Iranian nuclear programme. There is, therefore, no reason to question the estimate of the US intelligence community that Iran is a decade away from acquiring nuclear-weapon capability. Even the Israeli military’s intelligence chief talks of Iran needing at least three years to acquire nuclear weapon capability while the Israeli chief of staff believes that while Iran had taken a “significant step”, it had a long way to go before it could produce a nuclear bomb. And even if they did, he said he wasn’t convinced that Israel would be the first target.
The Americans of course maintain that even if the time frame is what has been suggested they are worried about Iran acquiring the technical knowledge and expertise to be able to manufacture nuclear weapons in the future. It is, of course, another matter that the Iranian nuclear programme was started with American assistance and was encouraged because Iran under the Shah was seen as an American ally protecting American interests in a strategically important region. They also argue that once Iran acquires nuclear capability it would be impossible to stop other regional countries such as Egypt and Turkey from doing likewise thus unravelling the entire non-proliferation regime.
Again, critics point out that by entering into a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement with India the Americans have themselves driven a coach through the non-proliferation regime that they had painstakingly constructed over the last two decades.
The negotiations that the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany are now having will not result in an agreement to have a Security Council resolution imposing meaningful sanctions on Iran. The Russians and the Chinese are strongly opposed to any such measure not only because of their relationship with Iran but because they genuinely believe that this may lead to Iranian denunciation of the NPT and consequently the removal of all current constraints on Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapon capability.
In America itself, analysts, already demoralised by the deterioration of the Iraq situation, fear that any action against Iran would almost certainly prompt the use of Iran’s considerable influence to further fan the fires of sectarian conflict in Iraq. Most agree that the alternative — sanctions that do not work or sanctions that are imposed only by a “coalition of the willing” — offers no solution. Many, therefore, suggest that the United States should enter into direct negotiations with Iran.
Despite the enormous publicity that reports about contingency planning for a military attack on Iran have received little credence is attached to the possibility of this option being exercised. Similarly, few believe that the $75 million that the Bush administration had earmarked to encourage “regime change” will really make a difference. Most are agreed that despite being the world’s only superpower and despite its justified concern about the possibility of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, the US has few good options on how to deal with the Iran issue.
The Americans may well be ruing the day in 2003 when the neo-conservatives in the Bush administration turned down an Iranian proposal for direct talks in which the Iranians had undertaken to address American concerns about Iran’s nuclear activities. Do the planned US-Iran talks on Iraq offer a prospect of such a proposal being renewed and accepted? What exactly is Iran angling for? Is there any division in Iranian ranks on how the present confrontation should be pushed? This, along with some facts and figures about what a military confrontation could mean, will be the subject of my next article. For the moment the important point is that Iran is still far from acquiring nuclear weapon capability and there is, therefore, time available for working out a negotiated settlement.
The writer is a former foreign secretary.
New saints in the offing
A FRIEND of mine, whom I shall call Pir Baksh because I don’t want to disclose his real name, has tried everything he could lay his hands upon to earn a regular, though not necessarily respectable, income but has failed every time. From some of his ventures he himself emerged unscathed but lost all that he had.
From others he just scraped through by the skin of his teeth, with the police in hot pursuit. In one case he was thrashed to an inch of his life by his own employees who hadn’t been paid for six months. But he hasn’t given up.
How can he give up? He has to go on if he doesn’t want to starve his family which is completely ignorant of his adventures in the field of business, finance, industry, supply, shop- keeping, contracting, construction work, and occasionally, simple employment. Of course they can’t even dream that his dabbling in these pursuits was always based on fraud, deceit, artifice, skullduggery, hocus-pocus, bluff or false pretences.
From what we hear about worldly wise people engaged in these illegal ways, most of them are always successful. Pir Bakhsh possesses all the necessary attributes in abundance, but somehow they have never given the same beneficial results when he has put them into practice. Maybe the powers that control the destinies of crooks and frauds are always showering their graces on others engaged in the same pursuits and have no time for Pir Bakhsh. He has just not been able to attract their attention and sympathy.
Going through a national Urdu daily one day, I was amused to read the story of a pir “manufactured” by a shopkeeper outside Lahore’s Mayo Hospital. The story said that in order to avoid the depredations of the Municipal Corporation which was bent upon pulling down encroachments, this chap adopted a clever stratagem. His medical store was itself an encroachment on the footpath. To escape the Corporation’s bulldozer, he overnight created a pir’s tomb in the lavatory of the store and christened it the mazar of Pir Shah Azizullah.
When the demolition squad arrived on the scene they found a green flag mounted on the tomb, and the owner and his family offering fateha and placing tokens of reverence on it. Passers-by also halted to pay their respects. Of course the trick was bound to misfire. Jealous neighbours had at once started whispering because, as they saw, the tomb was occupying the place which was obviously a lavatory once. Also, in his haste, the promoter of the new pir had laid the grave in such a way that the feet of the non-existent pir pointed towards the qibla, something unheard of among Muslims.
Thus the squad, that had gone away in the morning cowed by the spiritual presence of the pir, returned in the evening with vengeance, and the short-lived mazar was levelled to the ground. The pir died with the mazar.
I was still laughing over this story when friend Pir Bakhsh turned up. He had just recovered from one of his super ideas. When I showed him the newspaper, the cause of my amusement, he avidly read the news item and seemed to go into a trance. Obviously it had set him thinking. When he finally came back, he smiled and made the following historic statement:
“My friend, hope rises anew in my breast. The ways of the Almighty are truly strange. He provides nourishment to a worm inside a stone. I had lost all hope after my disastrous enterprise but I was a fool to do that. It meant that I was losing faith in my destiny which one must never do. It is quite simple. If God has created you He will also provide for you”.
I hadn’t the faintest notion what he was driving at. The only thing I could make out was that Pir Bakhsh’s depression had been miraculously lifted by the news story. He seemed to be looking at the future (somewhere in the direction of the ceiling fan) with the vision of an idealist. I asked him to explain and remove my suspense.
“My friend”, he said, “you continue to be dull and obtuse. That is why you have not gone up in the world. You must try to develop your faculties and learn to catch opportunity by the forelock, which is what I am going to do now. I am going to become a pir, a living pir, and my patron saint will be Pir Shah Azizullah who died in the medical store without being born, for it is he who has given me this new inspiration”.
This left me speechless. I couldn’t even ask how he proposed to go about his new venture. So far as I knew, a pir is a pir because he belongs to a pir family. It’s a sort of hereditary business, like kingship, with somebody setting up a dynasty long ago. You can’t manufacture a pir. Look what happened to the medical store chap who tried to do that, although his product already defunct offered no competition to anyone. I voiced these doubts to Pir Bakhsh.
“You don’t understand”, he explained, “The basic difference between me and the ordinary pirs will be this. They live off a hereditary business and don’t have to use their brains to make a living. Most of them don’t have any brains at all. I’ll be using my wits. After all I can’t allow my long years of experience of every kind of jiggery-pokery to go waste”. My curiosity aroused, I asked him how he proposed to make a start.
“It’s simple”, he said with supreme self-confidence, “do you remember that solitary grave behind the girls’ college? We once looked at the tombstone which had fallen face downward. It was of a subedar-major of Rawalpindi who had died in 1944. The new tombstone, suitably made to look old, will show the mazar to be that of Pir Shah Azizullah. I will be the grandson who has returned home after long years of meditation at the holy shrines in the Middle East in order to see the light”.
“Yes”, he added, “I’ve seen the light. And the light show that I have a profitable and permanent career before me as a pir and as the custodian of the spiritual legacy of Shah Azizullah. No more ventures into shady business for me and no more non- existent commerce and industry. Those days of uncertainty are at last over for me. For the first time now my children will be well-fed and my wife well-clothed. Mind you, when you come to the mazar to meet me don’t forget to bring the ritual cash offering with you”.
When religion & politics mix
WAS last week’s shocking carnage at Karachi’s Nishtar Park on Eid Milad Nabi a tragedy waiting to happen? People still find it difficult to fully comprehend why any one would want to kill scores of innocent people in cold blood on an occasion considered auspicious by all Muslims.
The ghastly attack wiped out the top leadership of the Sunni Tehreek, which was evidently the main target of the perpetrators of this evil deed.
Given the non-violent creed of the Tehreek and its pronounced emphasis on peaceful coexistence with other sects, no one really believes that this event had a sectarian dimension. It was plainly an act of political violence though one cannot be certain that any party will draw any long term mileage out of it.
Why would any one in a predominantly Muslim society want to kill people observing the birthday of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) who is a universally revered figure in the world of Islam? Why should such a manifestly apolitical and spiritual occasion invite the wrath of players in the game of politics? For the answer to this question one has only to take a look at how society and politics have evolved in Pakistan over the years.
Three phenomena that have emerged in the last several decades have cast a dark shadow on the country. One is the criminalisation of politics that has injected violence into the political process in a big way. The second development has been the integration of politics with religion that has been reinforced by the direction politics has taken in Pakistan not only since 1947 but also in the pre-independence years. Thirdly, the growing religiosity of the people — a relatively recent development — has given a boost to the new trend of religion being used for political purposes. If we analyse the emergence of these three trends, the Nishtar Park tragedy does not come as a surprise.
Whether it is the army or a civilian leadership that has been at the helm, it has become a normal practice in this country for the government of the day to resort to force to impose its writ and eliminate its rivals. Be it through the blatant use of the administrative machinery and the police as was done in the fifties, in 1972-77, from 1988 to date, or through the fiat of a military ruler in 1958-72 and 1977-88, those in office found it convenient to stifle dissent and silence their opponents. As political violence gained momentum, those outside the corridors of power but desirous of gaining entry also learnt the art of using the gun to achieve their political aims. In due course targeted killings became a popular political weapon.
The second phenomenon has been the induction of religion into politics. The religious idiom was first used in politics when the Khilafat movement was launched by the Ali brothers in the 1920s. It helped to mobilise the Muslim masses for political ends vis-a-vis the British colonial rulers. Hence on his return to India, when the Quaid-i-Azam worked to activate the Muslim League and gather the Muslims of India under its banner he also appealed to their religious sentiments. Although secular in his approach, Jinnah freely used Islamic rhetoric in the 1945-46 election campaign for the Constituent Assembly. Slogans, such as “Pakistan ka matlab kiya? La ilaha ilallah”, rang through the length and breadth of the subcontinent and helped the Muslim League win all the Muslim seats.
Although Mr Jinnah did not at any stage envisage a theocratic state, the thrust of his politics defined Pakistan as the homeland of the Muslim nation whose identity derived from Islam. As Pakistan failed to develop a stable democracy, religion and politics came to be intertwined more and more closely. Then came Ziaul Haq and transformed Pakistan totally into a state based on Islamic fiqh as interpreted by a coterie of ulama enjoying the favour of the military ruler.
There has been no going back since then even after democracy was supposedly revived and elected secular leaders formed the government. Religion came to be so closely integrated with politics that religious parties and ulama became political actors. In fact, one finds a distinct shift in their emphasis from the observance of the basic underlying principles of Islam that preach love, brotherhood, tolerance and charity to wresting political control of society and the state in the name of Islam.
Once the religious organisations became players in the game of politics they had to adopt the same rules as the others who were already in the playground — notably the political parties and the military. Thus they have also turned to violence terming it as jihad and calling those who are killed shaheeds.
The Sunni Tehreek was a relatively newcomer to this game — it was formed in the ‘80s — and has so far renounced violence, it has a political programme and has contested elections. Having borne the brunt of violent attacks from other parties, it remains to be seen how long it can remain peaceful. The elimination of its leadership in one strike — obviously by its political rivals whoever they may be — has put it under tremendous pressure to retaliate. Will it or will it not?
On their part the Islamic parties, which draw sustenance from the religiosity of the masses, have begun to appreciate the advantage they enjoy because of their mass following. Hence the compulsion they feel to demonstrate their strength by whipping up mass hysteria and mobilising mammoth crowds on religious festivals. As for the people who provide this mass following to the religious parties, why is their new-found orthodoxy on the rise? We still have the generation, which had reached adulthood when Ziaul Haq seized power and set out to purify Muslim society in Pakistan.
Looking back at the earlier years, one would agree that the people living in Pakistan then were progressive and enlightened in their outlook and better Muslims as far as following the injunctions of Islam in their true spirit were concerned. One didn’t have the exaggerated emphasis on the observance of rituals that has become all important today.
It is partially the religious frenzy that is stirred up by the media, the government and the religious parties that drives people towards spiritualism. People also seek relief in religion for the stresses they face in every day life which are on the rise. Be it the stress generated by poverty, the competition to keep up with the Joneses, the fall-out of bad governance and corruption, or a sense of intense insecurity caused by the rising crime graph, economic uncertainty and political instability, people by and large have to cope with more tensions in their life than their forefathers ever did. More and more of them are turning to Islam in their quest for mental peace and stability. But will they get it in the kind of Islam that is being practised?
Until politics is cleansed of violence and secularised, leaving people free to practise their religion as an act of personal faith and conviction, such terrible tragedies will continue to take place. True greater vigilance of the security agencies can reduce the scale of violence and minimise the loss of life. But if nothing changes, people will continue to be killed to promote the political ambitions of leaders using a bigoted brand of Islam to mask their true intentions.
THE drought has brought watering cans back into gardens. Britain’s gardeners (or at least those with the bad luck to live in the drought-hit south) are unplugging their automatic sprinkler systems and reeling in their hosepipes in a forced return to the simpler pleasures of watering by hand.
Sales of watering cans, say the shops, are shooting up in response to the ban, which now covers some 10 million customers and may spread if spring continues cold but dry. To gardeners who have grown used in recent years to the quiet hiss of an unlimited mains supply drenching their lawns and herbaceous borders, the prospect of a summer spent lugging waste water about by hand may not appeal. But watering cans are good for plants and good for the environment.
One sprinkler, left on for an hour, can use as much water as a family of four does in a week — and most of it goes to waste. Watering by hand, by contrast, gardeners can judge their plants as individual living things and give them what they need. The watering can habit must be as old as gardening itself: ceramic medieval watering pots gave way to 18th-century tin watering cans. Today, plastic does the job just as well. And what hosepipe could have saved Peter Rabbit in Mr McGregor’s garden? “Peter wriggled out just in time ... and jumped into a can. It would have been a beautiful thing to hide in, if it had not had so much water in it.”
—The Guardian, London