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DAWN - Opinion; June 28, 2006

June 28, 2006

Iran: the task ahead

By Najmuddin A. Shaikh


WHEN US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced that the Americans would join the Europeans in negotiations with Iran on its nuclear programme it was apparent that she had managed to overcome the opposition of the neo-conservatives. The problem is that her victory was partial. What she has now put on offer is what most in Iran would consider as too little and coming too late, if the price remains the suspension of all processes associated with uranium enrichment.

The offer that the European representative carried to Tehran has not been made public. However, leaks in the press suggest that the negotiating tactics have changed. In presenting the proposal, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana talked only of the carrots and left unexpressed, although implicit, the sticks. This was in contrast to an earlier proposal in August when the Iranians were told that they were being offered unprecedented goodies, but the emphasis was on what Iran had to give up i.e. the right to develop a nuclear fuel cycle and to opt out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The other leaked information suggests that the carrots are better. First, as a concrete manifestation of earlier western proposals regarding the peaceful use of nuclear energy, there is readiness to consider the supply of light water reactors to Iran. Second, the proposal apparently holds out the possibility that once Iran has satisfied the International Atomic Energy Agency with regard to its past activities it could exercise its right under the NPT to develop a nuclear fuel cycle for peaceful purposes. For both these proposals American participation is important since much of the nuclear fuel supply is controlled by the US, and without the latter’s approval, European agreement to supply reactors or to guarantee fuel supplies would not be worth very much.

Third, the expanded economic relationship would encompass more than the supply of spare parts for Iran’s aging civil air fleet and countenancing Iran’s bid for WTO membership. Fourth, while there is no American security guarantee and the administration has been at pains to emphasise that there is no such offer, the Iranians have been promised a place in a regional stability and security dialogue which the Europeans will presumably support.

Had such an offer been made in August 2005, moderate Iranians might have prevailed upon the power brokers in the Iranian establishment to accept a continuation of the freeze on nuclear activities and adherence to the additional protocol under which the IAEA could conduct unfettered, surprise inspections of suspected nuclear sites in Iran. At that time, the Iranians had not started the process of gasifying uranium, the first stage in the enrichment process, at Isfahan, and had certainly not set up the centrifuge cascade at Natanz.

So far the Iranian reaction has been positive though guarded. There is no doubt that even if the added economic incentives are insignificant and the proposals on assistance for the nuclear programme are conditional, the Iranians can derive considerable satisfaction from the fact that the Americans have agreed to participate in the talks. Both in psychological and substantive terms, this is a major advance. This accounts for the fact that the Iranians have not reacted strongly to the disincentives (previously called sticks) or to the precondition of suspension of nuclear activities.

However, the Iranians will not accept a suspension of all nuclear activity. It is too late for that. The populist President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with his strident nationalist rhetoric has built himself a base of support which he may attribute to his restoration of Iranian pride by standing up to the Great Satan. It appears that this support flows largely from the belief that, as a man of the people, he will fulfil the extravagant promises he made on the domestic front.

Indeed, during his tours of Iranian provinces, he has often encountered placards indicating that domestic economic concerns should have priority over foreign policy issues. It is possible that his almost inevitable failure to meet the expectations he has aroused will cause his popularity to wane. But at the moment he is riding the crest of the popularity. Iranian analysts, many opposed to Mr Ahmadinejad, concede that even if a candidate as popular as former President Khatami were to stand for elections today, Mr Ahmadinejad would still win by a large margin.

In Iran’s political structure, power is not concentrated in the president’s hands and he can be overruled by others, particularly, the rahbar, Ayatollah Khamanei. But there is no doubt that his base of support makes him a formidable proponent of nationalist sentiments that has made the nuclear programme a symbol of Iranian independence.

The question is whether the suspension of all nuclear activity by Iran is a substantive or psychological need for the Americans and their European allies. I had suggested earlier that the Americans must enter into direct talks with the Iranians and that a complete suspension of all nuclear activity must not be made a condition for such talks. I had argued that Iran’s programme was not advanced enough to justify apprehensions that protracted negotiations, without suspension of nuclear activity, would make it impossible to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapon capability.

This observation was made immediately after President Ahmadinejad announced in April the successful enrichment of uranium to the 3.5 per cent level required for power generation. This indicated that Iran had advanced faster technologically than expected. Recent reports indicate that Iranian success may have been more limited and that the uranium in question might have been that which the Chinese supplied earlier. This only serves to reinforce the point that the Iranian programme has a long way to go before it can deliver nuclear weapon capability. This is true especially in the wake of recent statements by Iranian officials that the installation of 3,000 centrifuges scheduled for completion by end 2006 would now be delayed to at least late 2007.

Even this is probably no more than an empty boast if American experts are correct in maintaining that Iran had parts and components for no more than 1,000 to 2,000 centrifuges and if the IAEA report of November 2004, that of the 1,275 centrifuges Iran had assembled prior to the November 2004 suspension only 30 per cent were in working condition, is accurate.

Apart from political considerations there is also a technical reason why Iran is insisting on operating the 164-centrifuge cascade at the experimental facility at Natanz. According to American experts, it is not possible to slow the spinning rotors in the cascade’s operation without the risk of causing irretrievable damage to the centrifuges. The solution offered is that they should be allowed to operate with inert gas rather than with gasified uranium. But the Iranians can argue rightly that, even according to American estimates, it would take 13.6 years to accumulate the quantity needed for a nuclear weapon at this facility.

Also past experience — their own and that of North Korea — would militate against hard-headed officials and not just populist politicians accepting complete suspension. The Iranians discovered that when they suspended all nuclear activity in November 2004 the Europeans continued to drag their feet on proposals and refused to accept any time-frame for the resolution of the problem. It was only after the Iranians threatened to restart gasification at Isfahan that a European proposal emerged.

The current revised proposal is much better but the improvement has come under the gun of continued Iranian nuclear activity and the failure of the Americans and Europeans to persuade the Russians and the Chinese to acquiesce in Security Council action against Iran without further efforts at a peaceful resolution. In the North Korea case, other complications aside, the 1994 framework agreement under which light water reactors were to be supplied to the country never reached the stage of implementation and the whole deal was rejected when the Bush administration came to power.

Much can be said against the North Koreans regarding their faithful adherence to the terms of the 1994 agreement. But for most observers the problem was foot dragging on the part of the United States and its partners. Given these circumstances, pragmatic Iranian officials would insist that politically and technologically important symbols should not be given up for promises that may or may not materialise.

The Iranians have said that they will respond to the proposals by mid-August. The Americans have said that this appears to be an inordinately long time. The fact, however, is that by Iranian reckoning they are reacting more quickly than the Europeans did. The Iranians have a difficult task ahead of them. They want negotiations which will allow them their right to develop a nuclear fuel cycle for peaceful purposes.

Yet, they know that not only the Europeans and Americans but others in the international community want cast iron assurances against Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapon capability. They need to have internal negotiations bearing in mind the newly acquired strength of the populist president and his penchant for strong statements appealing to the Iranian sense of prestige. For them, persuading the president and his supporters to accept any limits at all on Irans nuclear activity is going to require painstaking work.

What could emerge is a solution that I had proposed earlier. The 164-centrifuge cascade should continue to operate. The Iranians should agree to adhere to the IAEA additional protocol and should provide the required cooperation to the IAEA to answer the questions raised by Iran’s past clandestine nuclear activity. This may not require continued operation of the gasification plant at Isfahan since the Iranians have apparently accumulated sufficient stocks of uranium hexafluoride but this could be the subject of negotiations.

The important thing is that the Iranians must not be compelled to tell their people that the price of securing American participation in the negotiations has been to forsake an important symbol. This is the sort of compromise on which the Iranians may be able to maintain the support they have had from the Russians and the Chinese.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.

What of education for the poor?

By Zubeida Mustafa


AT A time when the poverty line and the number of people living below it in Pakistan are being hotly debated, there is another issue that needs to be addressed. That is the opportunity a poor person has to improve his economic and social status. Is it inevitable that a person at the bottom of the heap should be destined to remain there for many generations to come?

Unfortunately, that is how it is in this country, even though theoretically there is nothing to bar a person from striving for self-improvement and make progress. But the fact is that our society is so stratified economically that social and economic mobility is well nigh impossible for a person from the low income group. Even the power structure operates against the poor. In Europe we often hear stories of the sons and daughters of working class parents rising to become prime ministers of their country. Could one ever dream of that here?

Our class consciousness pervades the education system as well. This is our biggest misfortune because education alone can create awareness in a person and equip him with knowledge and skills to climb up the economic/social ladder. But with an education system so rigidly stratified and skewed from the primary to the university level, it is only in rare cases that a person with limited means can have access to high quality education to qualify for a lucrative job in business or a high post in the civil service.

A look at the primary education sector is quite revealing. Only 86 per cent of the children in the age group of five to nine years actually get enrolled in school. Of these 39 per cent drop out — mainly within a year. As they move on, the next whopping drop-out comes after five years when the child reaches the middle school level. In 2004-05 only 4.5 million children were in middle school (classes six to eight) as compared to the 21.3 million enrolled in the five classes that make up the primary section. Of these only 1.8 million went up to study in secondary school (classes nine and ten).

In other words the retention rate in school — that is from class I to class X — is barely 22.4 per cent. Obviously most of these fortunate ones who do not drop out of school come from the more affluent classes who are not required to join the ranks of child labour and have the family support and financial means to continue their schooling.

The accessibility to education is not the only challenge for the children of the poor. Quality is the next big hurdle. As education becomes more commercialised and the market forces come into play, the government has opted to shift the responsibility of educating the children of Pakistan to the private sector. Naturally enough, the profit-driven private schools charge higher fees which the poor cannot afford to pay. As a result they are consigned to the government institutions. Normally there should be nothing wrong in studying in public sector schools. But a visit to one will give a pretty clear idea of what awaits the child there.

If the school actually exists on the ground and not just on paper as thousands of ghost schools are known to do, and has a regular school building with toilets (unlike the 82,200 without them), drinking water (68,000 don’t have it), electricity (107,000 operate without it) and a boundary wall (82,000 lack it), he cannot be certain if there will be a teacher coming in to teach. If there is someone coming in to take the class it may be a semi-literate youngster from the village to whom the teacher may have outsourced his job for a paltry sum. Of course he himself would be collecting the pay packet every month.

For argument’s sake, let us assume that the child of a poor farmer is bright enough to benefit from the lacklustre public sector schooling described above. He would still have to depend on his luck to have a school functioning in his village. There are only 157,000 primary schools in Pakistan today and only 2,000 new ones were opened in the preceding year.

There are years when the number of schools in the country actually goes down, Thus in the year 2000-01 there was a sudden drop of 15,000 in the number of primary schools for unexplained reasons. At this rate a mathematician could calculate and let us know what is the probability of a child of poor parents being enrolled in school and then not dropping out before he has actually benefited from the education he is provided.

How will a child who is already handicapped by poverty, illiteracy in the family, lack of exposure to a mentally stimulating environment manage to learn enough to pull himself out of the quagmire of poverty? Would he ever qualify on merit to enter a university even if he is offered a lucrative scholarship? There are many other factors that militate against his progress. On account of poverty his mother will fail to provide him nourishing food and his circumstances would deprive him of clean water and sanitation.

This deprivation would combine to rob him of his health and since the government does not think it important to provide health care to the people his parents would not take him to a doctor until he is seriously ill. With disease stalking him all the time would he ever be able to attend school regularly and study with concentration? Many mineral and vitamin deficiencies would have stunted his mental development making him a slow learner who would be required to put up with physical abuse from his teacher, not very highly educated himself.

Hence, it is time our policymakers realised that number crunching will not eliminate poverty. What is their definition of the poor? Anyone who earns Rs 878 or more per head is not regarded as poor (Pakistan Economic Survey, 2005-06). Nor will economic growth that boosts the GDP ensure that every person’s income will actually rise. Even if there is an improvement in people’s purchasing power it will not be substantial enough for them to send their children to elite private schools or even the middle level schools that now charge anything between Rs 600 and Rs 1,000.

Without good education can a child ever aspire to pull himself out of the rut and improve his status? When any civilised society speaks of equality, it is equality of opportunity that it refers to. Unfortunately, this does not exist in Pakistan. How can a child deprived of good education and healthcare ever hope to compete with his compatriot who has these in abundance.

The Economist of London (June 17, 2006) defended a system in which the spoils are distributed unevenly saying, “Inequality is not inherently wrong — as long as three conditions are met: first, society as a whole is getting richer; second, there is a safety net for the poor; and third, everybody regardless of class, race, creed or sex, has an opportunity to climb up through the system.” In Pakistan’s case, inequality and poverty are morally wrong, and second and third conditions are criminally violated.

How tolerant are we?

By Hafizur Rahman


HAVE you noticed how every nation, every society, every individual claims that tolerance of political, religious and social views of others is its cardinal principle? Compare this with the tolerance that actually prevails and you come to the conclusion that either all these nations, societies and individuals were liars and hypocrites, or they didn’t know what tolerance means.

We take pride in the fact that Islam is the most tolerant of religions. Nobody can deny this fact. But what about Muslims and particularly the Muslims of Pakistan? Are they as tolerant as their faith teaches them to be? Please note that I do not accuse Muslims in general of being intolerant, only those who belong to the land of the pure where even the government has been made intolerant by certain laws promulgated by General Ziaul Haq. As for Muslims of other lands, one may like to highlight an amazing example from the Far East.

Malaysia is a country that is set to become the pride of the Muslim world for a number of reasons which I need not go into. Its constitution has this common feature with that of Pakistan that it is a federal constitution. Just as we have provinces in Pakistan which can elect any government they like Malaysia has a number of semi-autonomous states. One of them is Kelantan, ruled by the Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PIS), which is politically opposed to the national party of former Prime Minister Mahathir Muhammad.

It is a case just like the NWFP province in Pakistan being ruled by the MMA. Mahathir did not like the PIS and its maulvi chief minister (if they are still in power) because they were committed to imposing the Shariah in that state while he was all for a pluralistic society in a country with a 40 per cent Chinese population.

The destruction by Afghanistan’s Taliban of the invaluable ancient standing Buddhas, veritable colossi, carved into a hillside in Bamiyan, is still fresh in public memory. But look at what the PIS government allowed in Kelantan where South-East Asia’s largest sitting Buddha was formally inaugurated a couple of years ago at a place called Tumpat, even as the debate about religious extremism was going on in Malaysia and elsewhere.

Let me quote an AFP report which stated that “Orange-robed monks chanted prayers and lit two giant candles to inaugurate the 99 feet high, 156 feet wide statue of Buddha sitting cross-legged in a state of meditation atop Wat Machimmaram. The ceremony kicked off a week-long festival that is to culminate when the Buddha with pure gold lips will have his giant tear-shaped heart installed.

“Hundreds of ethnic Chinese who make up less than five per cent of Kelantan’s 1.4 million people burned joss sticks and stuck thin gold foil on the Buddha’s heart which was being displayed on a makeshift stage. A hundred thousand worshippers from as far as Thailand, Singapore and Sri Lanka, plus 500 Thai monks, were expected to turn up for the formal installation ceremony. The statue took ten years to build and cost more than a million dollars. It is the second giant Buddha image in this Muslim dominated state. The first, a reclining version, was opened in the 1980s and is one of the biggest in Asia.

“According to Hu Pang Chaw, state government officer in charge of Chinese affairs, the PIS was tolerant towards other religions but was widely misunderstood. All races live peacefully in Kelantan state and speak Malay fluently. He said there were many misconceptions about the PIS but critics should come and see the truth themselves; the PIS government does not enforce Islam on the people and lays stress on Islamic concepts about justice, fighting corruption, cleanliness and true freedom”.

This was the attitude towards the minorities of a committed Islamic government in a Muslim country. Compare this with what the self-styled Islamic government of General Ziaul Haq did in 1982 or thereabouts. One of his numerous amendments to the constitution involved removal of the word “free” from the Article that inter alia stated, “Religious minorities will be free to propagate their faith.” On the face of it this appears to be a minor change, but you can imagine how the minorities feel about it.

Our government leaders are never tired of proclaiming that there is absolute freedom of faith and belief in Pakistan, whereas, what to say of criticizing any cultural practice of the Muslims the minorities are not even permitted (as the above- mentioned amendment shows) to pursue their religious practices with immunity. Over the decades successive governments have allowed themselves to suffer this and other amendments till we have now reached the stage where no regime, howsoever powerful, can even dream of abrogating them for fear of being accused of appeasing the minorities.

Fifty-nine years after independence when the Quaid-i-Azam made his historic pronouncement to the minorities that they were free to go to their places of worship, we Muslims of Pakistan must ask ourselves one question. If we are treating the minorities liberally why do they feel they are second class citizens? Why have they not been able to merge themselves in the mainstream?

Among Pakistani Muslims every mosque is labelled sect-wise, and the ‘namazis’ from that sect only may say their prayers in it. I love the example of broadmindedness set by the Holy Prophet (PBUH) when he directed that the Christians from Najran, who had come to have talks with him in Madina, should be housed and fed in what must be the Masjid-e-Nabwi of today. I wonder to which “sect” the Masjid belonged at that time.

Let me ask a question. On Sunday, 17 August, 1947, the Quaid- i-Azam and Miss Fatima Jinnah attended a church service in Karachi, a thanksgiving for the creation of Pakistan, conducted with true Christian spirit and ritual. As things have come to pass in Pakistan, can President Pervez Musharraf or PM Shaukat Aziz, or Mr Shujaat Husain, with all their loud claims of popularity and public backing, dare to attend a religious service in a church or a temple today? God help “tolerant” Pakistan!

Net neutrality hype

HYPERBOLE may be the native language of Washington lobbyists, but the debate over regulating high-speed Internet providers has unleashed a rare apocalyptic synchronicity. Both sides make the same dire warning: The future of the Internet is at stake. And both respond in the wrong way.

At issue is whether broadband providers will be able to offer websites and services a faster route into their customers’ homes and offices. Some want to prioritise traffic on the last mile for a fee. This way, they say, Web-based companies can ensure the quality of the movies, music and other services they deliver online. It also would help broadband providers raise the money they say they need to keep up with the growing demand for space on their networks.

This kind of prioritising scares some high-tech firms and advocacy groups, which worry about phone and cable companies picking winners and losers online. Such interference, they say, would stifle innovation by making it harder for start-ups and interest groups to compete with well-funded media powerhouses. They want Congress to preserve “network neutrality” by banning network operators from prioritizing data in a discriminatory way.

The best protection for websites and Internet users is to have more broadband providers competing with the phone and cable companies. Until that happens, notwithstanding the fiery rhetoric by both sides, there is a way to split the baby. Cable operators already divide their wires into two sections: one for prioritised data, which is used for television and related services, and another for Internet access. As phone companies add capacity to their networks, they should be able to take a similar path.

This approach is also consistent with what Internet users expect when they sign up for broadband. Having paid a premium for better Internet access, they don’t want their broadband provider cutting deals that could put their favourite sites at the tail end of the pipe. Meanwhile, Web-based companies shouldn’t be forced to pay more just to continue delivering the experience they deliver today.

Unfortunately, that’s not the route taken by the House earlier this month when it passed a bill to make it easier for phone companies to offer cable TV-like services.

—Los Angeles Times