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DAWN - Opinion; April 26, 2006

April 26, 2006

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Resolving the Iran crisis

By Najmuddin A. Shaikh


AS I discussed in my previous column, it is clear that despite Washington’s statements, the Iranian nuclear programme has a long way to go before it can acquire the capability to manufacture nuclear weapon quality fissile material and an even a greater distance to cover before it can actually manufacture a nuclear weapon. The Americans maintain that the Iranian nuclear programme makes sense only if the objective is nuclear weapon capability since with their vast oil and gas resources they do not need to rely on nuclear energy for generating electricity.

The Iranians argue that they have expended vast sums of money to develop hydro power because they believe that their fossil fuel can be put to better use than for power generation and it was logical for them to look to nuclear energy also.

Whatever the merit of the Iranian argument they did have the obligation as signatories of the NPT to keep the IAEA informed of all their nuclear activities and for 18 years they failed to do so. The Iranians argue that they did so because they knew that its rights under the NPT notwithstanding, the West would never have permitted Iran to develop the nuclear fuel cycle it wanted and that its only prospect for doing so was to follow the example of clandestine development set by Israel, India and Pakistan. The fact that these countries were not signatories of the NPT and, therefore, not bound to inform the IAEA, they could dismiss as a legal quibble since the West had made it clear that they would not grant Iran the right to develop a nuclear fuel anymore than they would a non-NPT country since Iran was a pariah country. The Iranian case can be dismissed as weak.

Let us, therefore, concede that Iran does want nuclear weapon capability and that it has been pursuing this goal for the last 20 years at least. The question is what would be the best means of dissuading the Iranians from pursuing this path. According to a school of thought there is nothing that will persuade the Iranians to give up the pursuit of this option for the following reasons.

The Americans have made no secret of their desire for regime change in Iran and neo-conservatives have maintained fairly consistently that Iran, at least under the present ruling structure, represents the greatest threat to what the Americans perceive to be their interests in the region. They have been accused by Iran at least since August last year of fomenting insurrections in Iranian Kurdistan, the Arab majority province of Ahwaz, north Iran that contains Azeri separatists and in the Sunni province of Seistan and Balochistan. They have now appropriated $75 million to assist opposition groups in Iran to overthrow the current regime which they consider unrepresentative.

The Americans have a large military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq. Currently, these forces have their hands full with the unenviable and deteriorating situation in both countries. But this does not mean that the bases they have created can not become launching pads for military attacks or subversive activities against Iran. Even if these forces are withdrawn it is certain that the Americans will maintain bases there, which along with the bases the Americans have in the Persian Gulf states and in Central Asia, will mean that Iran will at all times have a formidable American presence along almost all its borders and coastal waters.

The Americans have rejected every Iranian overture to work out a modus vivendi, most recently in 2003 when the Iranians had apparently proposed the commencement of a dialogue in which they had offered to address American concerns including anxieties about Iran’s nuclear programme. Whether this refusal to negotiate owes to the trauma the Americans suffered during the 1979 occupation of the American embassy or to the past sorry experience with secret negotiations or to the belief that the Iranian regime is the greatest supporter of terrorist groups and the greatest opponent of an American mediated solution in the Middle East is, from the Iranian perspective, irrelevant.

The Israelis want to ensure that no state in the region matches its military or nuclear capability. From the Iranian perspective the war against Iraq was waged primarily because Israel’s supporters in Washington wanted Iraq, the only Arab country with the potential to challenge Israel, cut down to size. Now the Israelis and their supporters in Washington say that the real threat in the region is posed by Iran since it is both larger and more dedicated, ostensibly, to the destruction or undermining of Israel. With American encouragement Israel would conceivably be prepared to take on the task of taking out Iran’s nuclear facilities in a duplication of the action they had taken against the Iraqi nuclear reactor in Osirak in the 1980s.

The example of North Korea, which has acquired or claims to have acquired nuclear weapons, shows that this sort of capability improves its negotiating position. North Korea’s current demand for security guarantees and economic assistance, in return for moving towards a nuclear weapons free Korean Peninsula now seems much more attainable. Perhaps the Americans will take the same approach towards the Iranians if they have this capability.

With the Americans bogged down in both Iraq and Afghanistan and apprehensive of the considerable influence that Iran could exercise to America’s disadvantage in both countries this was perhaps the best time to push ahead with seeking the sort of capability that could deter America in the future. There is, of course, a certain plausibility to the thesis that Iran had other reasons also for wanting to acquire nuclear weapon capability, notably that its sense of its place in the regional scheme of things required that it match the capabilities that three regional countries, Israel, India and Pakistan, had acquired. Also, the strong belief that Iraq would never have used chemical weapons against Iran if the latter had the capability. In my view, however, more than anything else it is American hostility and the American presence in the region that is driving Iranian ambitions in this direction.

Does America have a military option to thwart Iranian ambitions? Was the Seymour Hersh article a pointer in that direction? It is true that the US has the military capacity, even without using nuclear weapons and despite the commitment of its forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, to knock out Iran’s defences and nuclear installations using only its air force since its devastating air power is not committed in Iraq. It has been calculated that a fleet of 120 B52, B1 and B2 bombers representing only part of the US air force’s capacity could hit 5,000 targets in a single mission. Thousands of other warplanes and missiles are available. The army and marines, despite commitments in Iraq, could find the forces to secure coastal oilfields and to conduct raids into Iran. The CIA, in the meanwhile, could in a disabled Iran use its resources to further foment separatist movements and bring about civil war conditions.

It could also use the Israeli air force whose capability has been augmented by the import of long-range versions of the US F-15 and F-16 strike aircraft — the F-15I and the F-16I. Twenty five of the F-15Is are currently in service and Israel is building up a force of 102 F-16I aircraft, deliveries having started in 2003. The Israeli air force has also acquired 500 earth penetrating bombs from the United States for use against underground facilities. Israeli military units have also been involved in a range of operations in Iraq, especially in the Kurdish northeast of the country where, among other activities, they have been training commando units and it can be assumed that they would be able to use the facilities there.

Having the capacity for such an attack and the ability to cope with the consequences are two different things as the Americans have discovered in Iraq. A disruption of oil supplies taking only the Iranian supply off the market would drive oil prices to $100 or more. If the Iranians block the straits of Hormuz or even threaten to do so the nervous prices would be driven even higher. The Hezbollah in Lebanon would, in support of Iraq, resume military activity against Israel. Most importantly, Iran’s supporters in Iraq and Afghanistan would do their utmost to disrupt the delicately poised political process in these countries and militarily make life even more miserable for the Americans than it already is. In the Muslim world, despite sectarian strife and doubts about Iran, anti-American feeling and extremism will be strengthened.

A politically weakened Bush administration would have little chance of getting support for what would be seen as another disastrous military adventure. Can America persuade the other members of the Security Council to approve sanctions for Iran? So far this seems unlikely given the opposition from China and Russia. Can they have sanctions imposed by a coalition of the willing? This is possible but they will not be effective and may merely serve to strengthen domestic support for President Ahmadinejad and perhaps provide the hardliners in Iran a pretext for withdrawing from the NPT.

These are not good options. The only one worth considering seriously is something that Bush should have done sometime ago and that is talk to the Iranians directly. The chances that this will lead to a cessation of laboratory scale uranium enrichment are non-existent. No government in Iran could afford to do that. But they may well get an agreement which ensures that Iran goes no further, in return for security guarantees and the prospect of near normal relations with the world’s only superpower.

There are many influential Iranians who are looking for such a solution if only because they do not, despite all the bluster, want a continuation of the current confrontation. The statements of Ex-President Rafsanjani, former Secretary of the National Security Council Rouhani and even the statements of the present negotiator Larijani all suggest that such a compromise is being sought.

For the Americans it should not be too embarrassing to suggest that negotiations should start on the basis of the proposals made by Iran in 2003.The negotiations will be difficult and neo-conservatives will argue that Iran is buying time to pursue its nuclear programme but this can be guarded against by making more rigorous application of the inspection rights of the IAEA a precondition for the talks and by working more intensively on providing cast iron guarantees that the Iranians will have access to nuclear fuel from both Russia and other sources.

In any case the Americans too need time and tacit if not overt Iranian cooperation to try and ensure that the political process in Iraq is not disrupted and that some compromises are worked out that can bring a durable agreement between the competing ethnic and sectarian factions in Iraq. A key consideration should be that even those strongly opposed to the American invasion of Iraq now want that the Americans should be able to withdraw from that country in good order without leaving behind chaos or a dismembered Iraq. For this, Iranian cooperation is necessary and not too high a price will need to be paid to get it.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.

Faith and prayer

By Hafizur Rahman


NOW that we are playing international cricket again in a big way, I ask myself what has happened to our people’s dependence on divine blessing for winning matches in the past? Have we become more rational or have the people lost their old zest for cricket?

I wonder how many of you remember the fact that when the Pakistan team won a test match in South Africa some years ago, its members prostrated themselves on the ground to thank the Almighty for His bounty. While it was decent of them to be humble (though they need not have made an exhibition of it) this was nothing compared to the frenzy the nation went through when it was in the midst of the World Cup in Australia. Even the then prime minister (Ms Benazir Bhutto) called upon people to pray for the final win.

Nothing surprising in all this. It was only symptomatic of the fact that the Muslim population of Pakistan, from the top boss to common man, is firm in its credo: let’s not make any effort but just pray for things to come our way. As children we were taught: “God helps those who help themselves.” Apparently this no longer holds good for most Pakistanis. God is supposed to help us even if we do not lift one little finger to help ourselves.

To go back to cricket, nothing helped more to confirm my thesis than the way we behaved during the crucial match with India in Bangalore some years ago. Mass prayers were held all over the country to seek the Almighty’s help for our team’s victory. Even the ulema, who used to condemn cricket as frivolous entertainment, joined in the hysteria. And when we lost we were looking for scapegoats. The question is, why couldn’t we reconcile ourselves to God’s will, and also look at our faults?

If our faith teaches us to pray and ask Allah to fulfil our desires, it also teaches us to submit to His decisions and accept that they were the best and in our interest. Maybe by not granting a particular wish He means to teach us a lesson. Though you may have noticed that we are not very good at learning lessons. No other sporting event had generated so much comment as that match in Bangalore. Even politicians had their say. Those of the official persuasion tended to remain glum. But the opposition found in it a good opportunity to blast the ruling regime. Nobody thought of God’s will and our team’s failings.

Some public figures conjured up really weird reasons for the disappointing result. I shall never forget the comment of Chaudhry Shujaat Husain, a pillar of the then PML-N, who really took the cake. In a burst of enlightenment he pronounced the verdict that since the PTV song which boasted that we must win, did not contain the word Insha’Allah. That is why we lost.

Maybe if this deficiency in the song had been rectified in time we would have won the match. But, as a wag aptly put it, “How does Chaudhry Sahib know that Mohammad Azaharuddin had not said Insha’Allah before PTV could have thought of it?”

If we go by this formula, even a weak team sent to Bangalore to play that cricket match would have won provided every Muslim in the country had recited Insha’Allah day and night. That this would have amounted to wrong interpretation of our religion and treating the will of God as something that can be manipulated, would have bothered no one. As Muslims do we need to be told what Insha’Allah actually means?

Politicians in the country who fall in the category of the opposition have been shouting themselves hoarse for many years now that the military regime headed by General Pervez Musharraf is about to surrender to the public will and go back to the barracks. It is a different matter that its harangues are causing no dent in its armour. Maybe they forgot to say Insha’Allah every time they wished the khakis to disappear like a bad dream.

There is power in prayer if it is imbued with sincerity and devotion. Prayer is not a mantra or a magical incantation intoned selfishly to obtain petty ends. Supplication to God is supposed to be for higher things such as matters of life and death, and that too when we are sure that we have done our best and now wait for God’s blessing. Asking God for victory in war makes sense, but begging for a win in a cricket match with India looks like praying for a commercial plot in Islamabad’s Blue Area.

We have to be positive in our outlook on this matter. Cricket is like any other game and our team is like any other team.

Counting aid dollars

CONSERVATIVES argue that private aid is less bureaucratic and more effective than the government kind, and that incorporating it into international lists of donors could end the common complaint that the United States is stingy.

A new study by the Hudson Institute sets out to prove this point. It concludes that US private giving to poor countries came to $71 billion in 2004, a sum more than triple the US government’s foreign aid and nearly as large as the $80 billion given away by all donor governments combined.

By itself, official US foreign aid comes to a minimal 0.17 per cent of the gross domestic product, the second-lowest share among the 22 rich countries tracked by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Add in private philanthropy, and US help to poor countries jumps to 0.61 per cent of GDP, only slightly less than the 0.7 per cent target urged by development advocates.

But who’s giving most of this private aid? Foundations, corporate philanthropic efforts, religious organizations and voluntary aid groups account for only about one third; fully two-thirds comes from migrant workers sending money home. These worker remittances have become a powerful engine of progress in countries from the Philippines to El Salvador. But these transfers, mainly within families, clearly aren’t the same as “foreign aid” or even “charity.” Moreover, they don’t tend to flow to the regions most in need — notably, Africa.

Eliminate these remittances, and the United States doesn’t stand out for its generosity. Official aid plus private charity comes to 0.39 per cent of GDP, tying the United States for 10th place in the OECD’s table of donors. Add in a reasonable estimate for private giving in Europe and elsewhere, and the United States slips into the bottom half, according to Steve Radelet of the Center for Global Development.

The Hudson Institute is right to draw attention to unofficial aid; private actors can be more innovative and nimble than governments — though they can also be more amateurish.

—The Washington Post

The dismal state of health

By Zubeida Mustafa


WHILE lamenting the dismal performance of the health sector in Pakistan, the State Bank’s Annual Report 2004-2005 identifies the factors for the poor health status of the people. It lists them as “poverty, inadequate and inefficient allocation of resources, malnutrition, unhealthy living environment and unequal distribution of health facilities”.

The health indicators in the country are shameful and the main cause of consternation is the fact that Pakistan is a richer country than many others whose people are healthier than ours. Thus Pakistan stands at the bottom rung of the ladder in South Asia in many sub-sectors of health. Take the case of infant (IMR) and under-five mortality rates (U-5MR). In 2003 they were recorded as 74 and 98 per thousand live births respectively. These were much higher than those for our other South Asian neighbours. Following us were Bhutan and India with an IMR and U-5MR of 70 and 87 respectively. This speaks volumes about how much the Pakistani state and society care for their women and children.

Another worrisome aspect is that the poor health status of the people does not seem to cause much concern to policymakers who can, if they want to, change the situation. They make no serious effort to formulate and implement a feasible health policy that addresses the major health problems of the people. Neither do they think it is important to allocate sufficient resources to this sector to upgrade health facilities and expand them to meet the needs of the people, especially the poor.

Thus in 2002 (the year for which the UNDP gives statistics in its latest Human Development Report) the government earmarked only one per cent of the GDP for the health sector. The private sector spent 2.1 per cent. This ratio between public and private sector spending does not reflect well on the government’s priorities because in a country where nearly a third of the people live below the poverty line public sector spending on health care should have been higher. The way things stand at present, it is clear that a small privileged class enjoys the luxury of medical care in times of illness. Moreover the absolute amount spent on health has unfortunately declined. Per capita spending fell from $80 in 2001 to $62 in 2002.

A visit to public sector hospitals which are bursting at the seams is a real eyeopener. The general indifference towards the patients there is astounding as is the corruption that allows dishonest personnel staffing the health facilities to siphon off the funds that are actually meant for the poor. Small wonder that patients are asked to bring their own medicines, bandages and sutures if they want to be treated. The bulk of the hospital budget is spent on the salaries of the staff.

Given this dismal state of the health facilities it is strange that the government fails to understand the significance of preventive medicine and the relationship between health and environment. This failure is amply evident in every walk of life. How many people have ‘sustainable access to an improved water source’ in the country? By cloaking the issue of clean water supply in these ambiguous terms the UNDP arrives at the impressive figure of 90 per cent in Pakistan. But we don’t have to be reminded of the high incidence of diarrhoeal diseases in the country which testifies to the quality of water a majority of people are receiving and perforce drinking.

The situation in respect of sanitation is no better. Unfortunately those at the helm have failed to understand the importance of cleanliness for good health. Open sewers euphemistically called storm water drains, garbage heaps that seem set to swallow the human habitations in their vicinity, industrial waste, air pollution, noise pollution and man-made ecological disasters have a direct impact on the physical and mental health of people.

Now that the state has absolved itself of the responsibility of health care of its citizens in an age when the marketplace reigns supreme, the price of this neglect of environment has to be paid by people themselves. They shell out huge amounts to get themselves treated by health practitioners with costly drugs. If they are too poor to afford the cost of treatment, they visit the quacks and are chronically ill until death brings them relief.

The State Bank report links bad health to poverty. It cites a National Human Development Survey (2003) that found that 55 per cent of the poor and 65 per cent of the very poor were ill. True, malnutrition is a major contributing factor to disease and poverty leads to malnutrition. Besides the poor are forced to bear the brunt of insanitation and unclean water. They live in crowded conditions and fresh and clean air is not their prerogative either.

The report rightly stresses the need to focus on preventive measures to reduce the incidence of illness along with the expansion of health facilities. It calls for not only an increase in financial allocations to the health sector but also emphasises the “efficient utilisation of funds” to optimise the benefits from investment in the health sector.

There are two other factors that the State Bank report fails to take note of which could make a lot of difference to the health of the people. One is education. It is important that just as poverty has been linked to ill health, illiteracy and poor education should also be linked to disease and malnutrition. Not only are the majority of our people illiterate, an even larger bigger number are ignorant and unschooled in the basic principles of hygiene, nutrition and exercise. That can be attributed to the failure of our education system and the electronic media. Whenever a concerted effort has been made to disseminate messages pertaining to health education and information, a dent has usually been made. Thus the campaigns to administer polio drops, immunise children against preventable childhood diseases of childhood and reduce the family size have created an impact as follow-up surveys have shown.

Why can’t the government launch similar campaigns for sanitation and environmental protection? The answer is obvious. The brunt of the responsibility will fall on the government to provide the services it motivates the people to use. For instance, when people are asked to have polio drops administered to their children, it is the health department that has to arrange for the immunisation facilities. If the government were to appeal to the people to keep their neighbourhoods clean, it would be obliged to arrange for garbage collection and sewage disposal. This being an ongoing job unlike polio days which come periodically, it is not surprising that the authorities shirk their responsibility.

The second factor that the State Bank report fails to note is the stress that living in this country causes the people. On the one hand is the uncertainty and the feeling of not having control over one’s circumstances that creates a lot of strain for people. Be it economic insecurity — the fear of losing one’s job, the inability to cope with inflation, and the erosion of one’s savings owing to factors beyond one’s control — or the physical hardship of coping with the irregularity in the provision of civic utilities, or worse still the psychological trauma caused by the breakdown in law and order, robberies, murders and terrorism, these affect a person’s health causing mental disorders or psychosomatic illnesses.

The tragedy is that the state, which is responsible for creating many of these conditions that lead to ill health, does not consider it its duty to provide succour to the ill. What we have is a system where the survival of the fittest is the rule of the game.