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DAWN - Opinion; May 17, 2006

May 17, 2006

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A faint glimmer of hope

By Tariq Fatemi


WITH both the US and Iran exchanging threats, an armed confrontation appears almost inevitable. Most members of the international community, including many of America’s friends and allies, had been in favour of maintaining a diplomatic dialogue with Iran and had pleaded with the IAEA and the EU-3 not to abandon efforts to find a peaceful resolution to the crisis. Now, there appears to be a glimmer of hope.

Shorn of all rhetoric, the issue is about Iran’s desire to acquire nuclear technology. The Iranians claim that their nuclear programme, which involves low-scale uranium enrichment, is necessary to meet indigenous fuel requirements of the nuclear reactor at Bushehr, as well as future nuclear reactors. In the course of this exercise, Iran took certain actions that the IAEA was not informed about as required under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

It is, however, important to note that no national or international agency found any credible evidence of a nuclear weapons programme in Iran. Even if Iran has succeeded in acquiring the capability of low-grade uranium enrichment, the production of highly enriched uranium (weapons grade HEU), necessary for a nuclear explosive device, is an altogether different matter, requiring a large number of centrifuges and years of hard work before the device can be manufactured.

What then explains the determination with which the US has mounted a campaign to force Iran to abandon its nuclear programme? The answer lies in the fact that ever since the ouster of the discredited monarchy, the US has looked at the Islamic regime in Tehran as an implacable foe. Iranian efforts to open channels of communication with Washington and to be helpful on issues of critical interest to the US, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, did not succeed in reducing Washington’s hostility.

In the meanwhile, the elimination of the Iranian nuclear programme became America’s primary objective. But that is not all. America’s strategic goal remains the transformation of Iran’s political, social, cultural and strategic orientation. In other words, it is regime change in Tehran that the US desires. To this end, Washington has already allocated 75 million dollars to fund anti-regime groups, with larger sums placed at the disposal of US intelligence agencies, to destabilise the regime.

Of course, the Iranians have not helped their cause by issuing highly irresponsible statements, especially those relating to Israel, the Jews and the Holocaust. Even a novice in international politics would know that while it may be possible to get away with statements against the US, the latter cannot brook any criticism of Israel.

What is particularly ominous is the manner in which the US has been orchestrating the global campaign against Iran. Rejecting Iran’s offer of bilateral talks on the nuclear issue, the Bush administration used its diplomatic clout to ensure that the EU-3 proposals would be so bereft of substance that Iran would reject them. Even though the IAEA failed to pronounce itself on the issue, with any definiteness, the case was shifted to the Security Council. This was a victory for the US which perceived Iran as having been found guilty.

Once the Iran case was referred to the UNSC, the American goal was to get a tough sanctions-inclusive resolution, under Chapter VII. Armed with this resolution, the US expected to convince its friends, primarily the UK and some of the East and Central European Nato allies, to take joint action against Iran.

Both Russia and China, however, remained firmly opposed to the passage of such a resolution, not because they favoured Iran’s nuclear programme, but for political, economic and strategic considerations. Both Russia and China understand that the Bush administration’s hostility towards Iran predates knowledge of that country’s nuclear programme. Both have watched how Washington has abandoned a multilateral approach to the resolution of international issues in favour of a unilateral approach. In their view, which is shared by others, this does not augur well for the international order. Even more worrying has been the manner in which Washington has brushed aside Russian and Chinese concerns over the establishment of strategic bases on their borders.

This has prompted the two to strengthen their ties. They wish to see the current regime in Tehran survive, for its replacement by a pro-American government would add considerably to their difficulties. Moreover, China has made Iran one of its primary energy-source country and its investments in Iran’s oil and gas fields, now run into billions of dollars.

This may explain why the US is working on different tracks at the same time. While insisting on being in the driver’s seat on UNSC deliberations and striving for a UN resolution, it has also begun preparations for military operations, should these become necessary. The US warnings are not mere rhetoric, but constitute a serious danger to regional and even global peace, as evident from the reaction of many senior American politicians, who are aware of how the administration was able to orchestrate the invasion of Iraq.

Former President Carter’s national security adviser, Zbignew Brzezinski, has declared that Iran’s nuclear programme did not constitute an eminent threat, at least for several years. He emphasised that any military action against Iran, without formal congressional approval, would be unconstitutional and merit the president’s impeachment. If done without the approval of the UN, it would be illegal and therefore a violation of the UN charter. Coming from a person known to be an advocate of assertive US diplomacy, these are serious expressions of concern and arise from the fear that the Bush administration cannot be counted upon to behave with maturity and restraint.

Brzezinski has rightly pointed out that the Iranian government, unlike the Saddam regime, would most likely react firmly and violently against US interests, both in the region and elsewhere. As a country of over 70 million people, with a long history of resisting oppressors, both domestic and foreign, and a willingness to suffer pain and deprivation in this effort, the Iranians would undoubtedly make the US “misadventure in Iraq look trivial”. Should the Iranians decide to reduce oil production, or disrupt the Straits of Hormuz, oil prices are likely to shoot up to $100 per barrel. Iran is also capable of using its many friends and sympathisers in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and other countries, to make life difficult for pro-American regimes. No wonder, Brzezinski advocates “patient engagement in a constructive atmosphere” in dealing with Iran.

To the relief of the international community and the chagrin of the Americans, both Moscow and Beijing have shown considerable resolve in resisting Washington’s pressure to join it in “manufacturing” a UNSC resolution on Iran. This arises from their belief that any enhancement of American influence in the energy-rich Gulf cannot be to their advantage. As major global powers and as countries that seek to promote the concept of multilateralism and be seen as friends of the Third World, and in particular, the Islamic world, they recognise the need to resist American urgings.

Now, coming back to what I had referred to as a faint glimmer of hope. The Bush administration’s credibility, both at home and abroad and the obvious weakness of its case against Iran has been such that there is little support for its policies. There is even a major schism in the national security establishment in Washington. But it is really the failure to carry along Moscow and Beijing that has led the Bush administration to show the first tentative signs of flexibility.

It has announced that it will no longer insist on the immediate passage of a UNSC resolution and instead give more time to the EU-3, that had earlier spearheaded negotiations with Iran, to prepare a new package of proposals, which after approval by the EU foreign ministers, will be formally presented to the Iranian government. This is a positive development, which hopefully will be used by the EU-3, to frame proposals that are serious and meaningful.

The American position is, however, not as well meaning as it may appear. In an interview to an American television network, Secretary Condoleezza Rice emphasised that “the offer would make clear that they (the Iranians) have a choice that would allow them to have a civil nuclear programme if that is, indeed, what they want.” But she has also warned that the US was now in favour of giving a clear option to Iran which can “either defy the international community and face isolation and UNSC action; or Iran can accept a path to a civil nuclear programme that is acceptable to the international community.”

This initiative provides greater time to the other countries, in particular the EU-3, to formulate new proposals that are more realistic and contain elements that could be attractive to Tehran. But in reality, the Americans have made only a tactical concession, primarily in order to demonstrate flexibility and a willingness to appear reasonable.

In real terms, the American strategic goal remains unaltered, especially as the American offer would require that uranium enrichment and processing take place elsewhere, and not on Iranian territory. This appears to be a revival of the earlier Russian offer to have uranium enrichment carried out on Russian territory. This was rejected by Tehran.

There is another interesting development and this is the dispatch of a long letter by President Ahmadinejad to President George Bush and which appears more as a lecture on religion, culture and ethics than a diplomatic exchange. Not surprisingly, the Bush administration plans not to respond formally to it. Nevertheless, the letter appears to have emanated from an Iranian desire to mollify some of its critics who felt that Ahmadinejad’s statements had earned strong criticism even in friendly capitals and added unnecessarily to the confrontation with the western world. It is also an attempt to show the world that Iran remains confident and prepared for a political dialogue with its rival and antagonist.

In this alarming situation, the Pakistan foreign secretary’s forthright declaration in Washington that Pakistan was “not in the business of regime change” is most welcome. Given our historic relations with Iran, that are not only deep and extensive but also involve a mutuality of interest, it is imperative that we make it clear to Washington that, in our view, a US attack on Iran would be a grave mistake. Moreover, we should also not entertain any US request for use of our ground, air or water space, in aid of its operations against Iran.

At the same time, those advocating a mediatory role for Pakistan may be doing so with good intentions, but are unaware of the ground realities. The hostility between the US and Iran is so deep and implacable that any would-be mediator is likely to fail. It is better that we keep away from any entanglement apart from advising restraint and advocating a peaceful, negotiated resolution to the problem. Instead, this is an opportunity for the OIC to come into its own and extend support for a peaceful, negotiated settlement.

The writer is a former ambassador.

Business and charity

By Zubeida Mustafa


THE Pakistan Centre for Philanthropy has prepared a report on corporate philanthropy to estimate the volume, patterns and range of ‘giving’ of Public Listed Companies in Pakistan. The findings of the PCP survey are significant as well as interesting. They confirm the changing trends in philanthropy in the country which has captured the interest of the government in a big way.

That is nothing intriguing. The government has been reducing its share in the social sectors which are directly concerned with human resource development. For instance, there was a time in the heyday of socialism when it was considered the responsibility of the government to provide basic education and health care to its citizens. Social welfare, from the cradle to the grave, was considered to be the responsibility of the state. Although Pakistan never succeeded in undertaking this responsibility fully, it did not reject this concept theoretically.

In the market-driven system of today, the emphasis has shifted from these concerns. Private entrepreneurs and charitable organisations and trusts are increasingly being called upon to play the role that was conventionally assumed to be that of the state. This approach has serious inherent limitations. Charitable trusts do not have unlimited resources.

As for those running private education and health institutions, their compulsion is to generate profits to keep them going. Profit driven by cupidity can be disastrous for the poor. The charges of such institutions are exorbitantly high and beyond the reach of the indigent. Whose responsibility should it then be to provide the social services to people of modest means?

Now that the government has begun to realise the weakness in the approach of minimal intervention, it has been trying to encourage private individuals and the corporate sector to step up their donations to meet the shortfalls in the services in the social sectors. The PCP was set up in 2001 as an independent non- profit support organisation to promote philanthropy for social investment. It is not engaged directly in philanthropy. But it does seek to create the climate and the support services to facilitate giving by others.

For instance, the PCP has undertaken a programme of certification of non-profit organisations and put up the details of the institutions which it considers qualified for receiving donations. That may help guide people trying to decide who is deserving of charity. It has also been promoting the concepts of corporate philanthropy (CP) and corporate social responsibility (CSR) which refer to the act of corporations donating a part of their profits to various charitable causes and their duty not to cause any harm to society — or atone for it if harm has been caused.

Such promotion is badly needed, for the image the public has of the corporate sector’s role in the development of health, education and housing is extremely poor. The recently launched report Corporate Philanthropy in Pakistan clearly establishes that the corporations are not as generous in their giving as one would have expected them to be. They have not shared their profits magnanimously with the poorer sections of society.

Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz once suggested that the corporate sector should assign at least one per cent of its profit before tax to giving. What do we have? According to the PCP the business sector is giving barely 0.33 per cent. True, some companies are very generous — e.g. one business donated Rs 0.7 million (82.2 per cent of its profit before tax) in 2003 while another donated Rs 36.8 million (37.2 per cent of PBT) in the same year and were at the top in terms of percentage and absolute amount paid. But a review of the reports of public listed companies shows that only 50 per cent of companies actually make donations.

The corporations’ role in boosting human resource development can be a vital one and raises some key questions. What is the corporate sector’s contribution in the promotion of the education of its own workers and their children and in providing them health care? Taking full responsibility should, incidentally, involve their setting up schools, literacy centres and hospitals for their own employees and not simply doling out medical and educational allowances to them. Companies could join hands to set up educational and health institutions to make optimum use of them. If their capacity is under-utilised, they could be opened to others as well.

The other issue that is now being questioned is the concept of philanthropy itself. If it is interpreted as charity — the act of giving to increase the well-being of mankind — as it was in the good old days of yore, one can well ask whether an institution that takes donations from the public is entitled to charge any fee from the needy who come to use its services. It is now known that many hospitals and schools, which run campaigns to raise funds for themselves from the people at large, charge fabulous fees from their beneficiaries. If a person can prove his poverty — at the cost of his self-esteem — he may get a hefty discount. Since these organisations do not show a profit on their books, they are termed nonprofit organisations and are entitled to accept philanthropy.

The PCP’ Gateway to Giving is a directory of 84 certified non-profit organisations that provides useful information about these bodies that are contributing to the social development of the country. By creating a certification mechanism the PCP hopes to promote “transparency, accountability and good governance”. This would certainly help donors determine the credibility of an organisation.

The directory lists many organisations that are known to charge a considerable sum for the services they render. But this is not mentioned specifically in the directory. In fact, among the organisations providing public service in education and health care only a handful offer free services. Others provide free/subsidised services but only to a fraction of their users after elaborate interviews have established the indigence of a person seeking this facility.

The PCP should do well to look into this aspect when certifying an organisation. The so-called charities which charge fabulous amounts from some and claim that this income is used to cover the cost of providing services to the deserving should be asked to show the exact ratio of paying and non-paying users.

It would also help if the organisations be asked to provide information about their rates, if they charge, or declare categorically that their services are free. The directory should state this very clearly so that the philanthropists know where their money is going. Declaring an institution a non-profit organisation is not enough because it may still be charging the users a hefty amount and showing this income as its expenses and not profit.

The wayward train

By Hafizur Rahman


I DO not have a very wide circle of acquaintance, nor do I go out much and meet people (from various walks of life, as they say) but whomever I come across these days seems to be convinced that for Pakistan the time has come for a Shahabuddin to appear and put the country back on the rails.

Now don’t start wondering who this Shahabuddin is. You’ll never be able to guess. No, he’s not a politician, so there’s no use going through the lists of first, second and third layer leaders of political parties. He’s also not a retired bureaucrat or someone in the World Bank. He’s not from the army either, nor is he connected with the navy or the air force. He’s also not from business or industry, and he’s certainly not from among the clerics.

He is not a ‘dakoo’ from the forests of Sindh, nor one of the Al Qaeda suspects from Afghanistan who has supposedly taken refuge in this country. The fact is that this particular Shahabuddin is not a Pakistani at all but only a symbol of what the Pakistani goods train needs so badly.

“Goods train!” you will exclaim. “One could appreciate your alluding to the Pakistani ship of state, but why compare the poor country to a goods train? And what is this mystery of a Shahabuddin? Who is he anyway that we need him as an engine driver?”

Some time ago, dear readers, there was a Reuters story from New Delhi about how a runaway train was finally brought under control by one Shahabuddin. This was a goods train laden exclusively with cattle, and Shahabuddin was one of the cattle owners riding along with his cows and buffaloes. I don’t know what the engine driver hoped to get from Muradabad when the train stopped there, but as he alighted on to the platform the engine brake grave way and the train steamed off on its own. He was left behind.

You will ask, where does the comparison of that goods train with Pakistan come in? According to Reuters the train hurtled across the plain of Uttar Pradesh and crossed a total of thirty-one stations before Shahabuddin was alerted to the possibility of a disaster, and jumping from wagon to wagon, he somehow got to the engine and managed to apply the brake.

To me it seems that the Pakistani goods train too left its driver at a stop called Muradabad (literally the city of hope) and now that 59 years have passed, it is high time someone like Shahabuddin dropped from somewhere to take over the controls of this aimless, wayward, driverless train.

As for the passengers of this train, according to the Reuters story, the poor cattle just stood huddled together in their wagons, oblivious of what was going on.

For them the stations came and went by, meaning nothing at all. What were their names? Were they big towns or small hamlets or busy junctions or just flag stations standing solitary on the dusty Uttar Pradesh plain? It did not matter for the cattle.

For them it was immaterial whether the train was going east or west or not going at all. They were there to be sold ultimately to the highest bidder as part of a system of commerce.

Sounds remarkably like the people of Pakistan, doesn’t it? These last 59 years have been like 59 stations. They came and went by, some momentous and memorable others dull and forgettable.

The passengers sat huddled together, unaware of the destination of the hapless train. Drivers there were many, some genuine and some impostors, some admired and some hated, but the people didn’t really know what was going on and where these drivers wanted the train to go.

At one turning point, there came a sharp bend in the track and the train broke into two, and from then on the two parts went their separate ways, as if they had never been together.

The trouble with such comparisons is that some people tend to take them literally. After reading this column you never know how many probable Shahabuddins may be spotted. Some may even begin to see themselves as the Shahabuddin who is ultimately going to be the saviour of the Pakistani runaway train.

We, the inhabitants of this country, are lucky that there is no one named Shahabuddin among the known names in our 70 or so political parties. There is not even an army general by that name I think. One thing is clear. He will come from the passengers, the people.

Some nit-pickers may argue that Shahabuddin was not a passenger of the driverless goods train in the manner in which I have portrayed the payload. It should have been one of the cows or buffaloes who should have stopped the train for the allegory to be complete. That’s what I meant just now the trouble with metaphors and symbols. Some people will simply analyse them to shreds.

Those who may object to describing Pakistan as a goods train full of cattle can read ship of the state instead. But that will not make the picture any better, for Pakistan can hardly be compared to Japan’s Bullet Train or the luxurious Orient Express that once ran from Paris to Istanbul. Moreover, the captains we have had were not masters of navigation or raised as traditional captains who are the last ones to leave the sinking ship. They always kept a special lifeboat for themselves to use when things got worse for them.

As for the passengers, you can put anything in the ship in place of the cattle but that will make no difference. The people of most Third World countries are often described in the West as dumb, driven cattle.

A windfall for the rich

LAWMAKERS in the US are about to pass a five-year, $70 billion tax cut, to be followed shortly by a “trailer” measure containing $20 billion or so more — who knows how large once Congress finishes larding it up?

The House approved the $70 billion measure last week; the Senate is to take it up and no one is holding out much hope of stopping it. Budgetary dishonesty, distributional unfairness, fiscal irresponsibility — by now the words are so familiar, it can be hard to appreciate how damaging this fiscal course will be.

To stuff the tax cuts into a $70 billion package, lawmakers used a gimmick that not only disguises the true cost of the tax cuts but also ends up, down the road, dramatically increasing it. A change in retirement savings rules would allow upper-income taxpayers to convert their ordinary individual retirement accounts into what are called Roth IRAs, in which savings are taxed at the time of deposit but can then grow tax-free.

This would bring in money in the short run ($6.4 billion over the next 10 years) but cost billions more in the long term. Indeed, because the legislation doesn’t specify that the converted accounts already exist, the change appears to be a backdoor lifting of all income limits for Roth IRA contributions for those clever enough — or with clever enough accountants — to exploit the loophole.

This is what passes for fairness in Washington these days: a big windfall for the wealthy to “pay for” — at least in the skewed reality of Washington budgeting — another tax cut for the wealthy. Middle-income households would receive an average tax cut of $20, while the 0.2 per cent of households with incomes over $1 million would get average tax cuts of $42,000, according to preliminary estimates by the Urban Institute-Brookings Institution Tax Policy Centre. Nearly half of the benefits from extending the cuts on capital gains and dividend income would go to households with incomes of more than $1 million.

You’ll hear the administration and its allies crowing that a recent surge in tax revenue proves that the Bush tax cuts are “working.” Capital gains cuts aren’t a particularly effective way to stimulate the economy, and while the rise in the stock market coincided with the passage of the cuts in 2003, the evidence of a causal link is weak.

—The Washington Post