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DAWN - Opinion; December 06, 2006

December 06, 2006

Uneasy ties with Iran

By Muhammad Ali Siddiqi


NOTWITHSTANDING the fund of goodwill that exists among the people, the relationship between Pakistan and Iran is far from ideal and is in fact characterised by an inexplicable coldness. A talk with a cross-section of Iran’s top leadership leaves no one in doubt that Iran is very keen to strike an understanding with Pakistan on regional issues, especially Afghanistan, but all of them complain — or perhaps confess — that something stands between the two countries and things do not move.

Diplomats like Foreign Minister Manoucheher Muttaki and nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani soft-pedalled the issue and merely emphasised the need for closer ties, implying the absence of the degree to which they wished to see the relations between the two countries. But others like former president Hashmi Rafsanjani and A.N.S. Khamoushi, chief of the Iranian Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Mines, were less reticent.

Whatever the topic of discussion — the nuclear issue, Iraq, the ticking bomb that is Lebanon or American policies in the Middle East — Iranians would ultimately focus on Afghanistan when it comes to relations with Pakistan. In brief, the Iranians are upset, if not hurt, by our Afghan policy, past and present. They emphasise that a common Pakistani and Iranian approach to the Afghan issue will help all the three countries; conversely, the absence of an Iranian-Pakistani understanding on Afghanistan has created immense problems for the region. They think the key to stability in the south-west Asian region is an understanding between Tehran and Islamabad.

An indication of Iran’s keenness to improve relations with Pakistan and project its views to the Pakistani people through the mass media was to be seen in the interviews arranged for the seven-man media team from Pakistan that visited Iran towards the end of last month. Normally, it would not be possible for men like Mutakki, Larijani and Rafsanjani to meet visiting newsmen from any country on a short notice, but in our case the meetings had been planned well in advance and the smallest of details taken care of.

So were the meetings with Mr Mohammad Hossein Saffar Harandi, Information Minister (Wazir-i-Farhang wa Irshsad-i-Islami), and the chiefs of Iran’s leading newspaper groups, including Hossein Shariatmadari, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s representative and president of the Kayhan Group, besides editors of Aitemad-i-Milli, Persian daily Iran, English Iran Daily and Arabic daily al-Wafaq, and we knew how desperately the concerned officials, led by Mohammad Khudadi, Iran’s out-going consul general in Lahore, tried for a meeting with President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, who unfortunately had a hectic schedule because elections to the Guardian Council were approaching.

Muttaki and Larijani refrained from criticising Pakistan, but Rafsanjani minced no words, and even though the official transcript of his talk with us omitted much of his criticism of Islamabad’s policies, what he actually told us was a true barometer of the Iranian leadership’s feelings towards Pakistan. He did not attach much importance to 9/11 in the context of Pakistan-Iran relations and said the slide in their relationship had begun before the terrorists destroyed the WTC. He also said Iran was concerned over the situation “in Quetta”, by which he obviously meant Balochistan.

The shockingly low volume of trade ($400 million) and the virtual absence of meaningful economic cooperation between the two countries testify to the absence of political warmth between the two countries. Few Pakistanis know that PIA does not fly to Tehran. One reason is that Iranian authorities insist that PIA must treat Tehran as a terminus. This makes a Karachi-Tehran-Karachi run uneconomical. On the contrary, Iranian airlines Mahan is making money by carrying Pakistani expats to Britain because Islamabad has allowed it to fly from Lahore to Britain.

In terms of the truth about Iran’s economy and the state of economic relations between the two countries, the most fruitful meeting turned out to be that with Khamoushi, whose name means silence but who turned out to be highly articulate. Iran is an oil-exporting country, but according to non-Iranian sources, its refining capacity is low and the country imports 50 per cent of its POL requirement. The oil and gas industry needs heavy investment, because most machinery is old, but according to Khamoushi “not too much” foreign investment has taken place, even though Tehran has over the last two years liberalised investment laws.

At least 40 per cent of the people live below the poverty line, and the government must create 750,000 jobs a year if the unemployment rate (11 per cent) is to be brought down, but at present less than 300,000 jobs are being created annually in a country where 75 per cent of the people are young.

Islamic Iran does not allow any foreign banks to operate, but Pakistan allowed an Iranian bank to open a branch in Karachi, but there has been no progress because the Iranian side wants the minimum requirement for paid-up capital to be reduced. Also, as Khamoushi informed us, Pakistani and Iranian companies cannot open letters of credit in each other’s banks, and it must be done via London or some third country capital. According to Khamoushi, the two countries have trade ties with over 100 countries, but nowhere do they come across such a difficulty. Khamoushi wondered why the two central banks cannot get together to sort this problem out.

Iran produces 1.2 million cars a year, but Pakistan does not allow their import. The result is that imports into Pakistan are confined to carpets, dry fruit and LPG cylinders. Iran produces excellent grapes, apples and bananas, but its citrus fruit is of a poor quality, and there is certainly a demand for Pakistani kinos. But there is very little trade by land, and most Pakistani exports go to Iran via Dubai, thus increasing the cost. Besides, during the season when Pakistan produces the best quality kinos, Iran increases tariff.

Similarly, during the last three years, Iran has increased import duties on items traditionally exported by Pakistan — rice 150 per cent, citrus fruits 45 per cent, sports goods 65 per cent and garments 50 to 150 per cent. The tariff on Pakistani rice is high and significantly lower for Indian rice. A Pakistan diplomat who did not wish to be identified said that in matters of trade Iran gives concessions to India. Iran has been supplying 30mw of electricity to neighbouring areas in Pakistan since 2002 under a three-year agreement, and it has now been extended by another three years. An agreement is likely to be signed for the supply of 100 mw of Iranian electricity to Gwadar.

Khamoushi was critical of the two governments, and perhaps out of politeness refrained from holding Pakistan alone responsible for the lack of worthwhile economic ties, but what the chamber chief did not tell us was that his office had frustrated every attempt by Pakistan’s ambassador during the last nine months to meet him (and the chief of the Iranian radio and TV organisation). He was right perhaps when he said that it was the absence of political warmth between them that stood in the way of a meaningful economic relationship. “Somehow”, he said, “we cannot work together, even though the potential for trade is very high.”

Perhaps nothing better illustrates the state of Pakistan-Iran relations than the fate of Pakistan’s Zahidan consulate. Spread over a huge area since the British days, the consulate has been in danger of collapse because Iranian authorities have not allowed repairs to be carried out to a building that is more than 60 years old. Over the years, the Iranians have been nibbling on the land and want Pakistan to move the consulate to a new site. If it is not clear why the Iranian authorities want the consulate to move away and why they wouldn’t let repairs to be carried out, it is equally inexplicable why Pakistani authorities do not choose to move to a new site and remove a source of friction.

A frustrating experience during our visit was lack of an opportunity to meet and mix with common Iranians. All persons we met during what turned out to be a tiring 9am-to-10pm schedule were government functionaries and newspapermen belonging to the government-controlled media. A possible visit to the Danishgah (university) did not materialise, and the only non-official Iranians we talked to in Tehran and Meshhed were hotel receptionists and waiters.

The print media shows the Iranian establishment’s division between conservatives and reformists. Newspapers and journals belonging to the latter category are persecuted by the judiciary dominated by hard-line conservatives. In September, pro-Khatami daily Sharq was banned for publishing “blasphemous and anti-Islam articles”, though its real provocation was a cartoon deemed insulting to the president, and its successor, Rozegar, was banned after six days of publication. Twenty editors and 35 other journalists were prosecuted this summer, and the papers banned included the government-controlled Iran Daily for publishing an anti-Azeri cartoon, and it restarted publication a few months later with a new team of journalists.

Kayhyan is among the most influential conservative dailies, and it considers it its Islamic duty to report on freedom struggles by Muslims in bondage. For that reason, it gives ample coverage to happenings in Indian-occupied Kashmir.

Aitemad-i-Milli is an important reformist daily, loyal to Mehdi Karrubi, Majlis Speaker. Over a chillo kebab lunch, its editor told us less about his paper and more about the injustices to Karrubi and the alleged rigging of last year’s presidential election when Karrubi was ousted in the first round.

On the whole Iranian newspapers do not print anti-Pakistan material, though they do produce statements by Pakistani opposition leaders. The exception was an attack last month on Pakistan’s Afghan policy by English daily Iran News, though it printed the Pakistani Press Counsellor’s response promptly.

There are five TV channels, all government-owned; satellite dishes remain illegal and the only foreign channel available is the BBC, which is shown 15 to 30 minutes late after being vetted. Internet sites run by Iranian dissidents abroad are carefully monitored and blacked out, and a special court has been set up to try “Internet crimes”.

The writer visited Iran recently as a member of a seven-man media delegation.

Resigning on principle

By Hafizur Rahman


SOME time ago I read in a newspaper the name of Stephen Walker in connection with a multinational and wondered if it was the same person who used to be in the US state department. The one I remember had quitted a prestigious job in that department just because he did not see eye to eye with its policy on Bosnia.

It was something amazing for me. For I cannot imagine someone leaving our foreign service because he did not like Pakistan’s policy towards the Antarctica. I have chosen to name that ice-bound region because the general public in our country knows as much about its location and importance as the people of the US know about Bosnia and its problems. And yet Mr Walker had the cheek to cock a snook at the State Department for its attitude towards a small and unfortunate country in Europe.

This reminds me of a business tycoon who was nominated by President Lyndon Johnson for ambassador’s post in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. Before I proceed further, let me first tell you about him. At an informal breakfast meeting with the ambassador-designate, President Johnson stood with him before a map of the world and asked him (just to make conversation, I suppose) which route he proposed to take in order to get to Colombo. The man had no idea where Ceylon was located. He lost the job.

This much for general public awareness in the US about the rest of the world. But apparently Mr Stephen Walker knew about Bosnia-Herzegovina because he dealt with East European affairs in the state department. As I recall, he had told the press that he could not countenance US support for a diplomatic process that legitimised genocide.

Our favourite national pastime is to point out evils in American society and that country’s practice of double standards on world issues. For the Urdu press in particular the US is the most easily available whipping boy. I recall that the Stephen Walker story was not published by any of our Urdu dailies when it emanated from Washington.

There have been individual resignations in Pakistan because of disagreement “on principle” with the government in power. But in most cases the principles cited were so insignificant that try as I might I am unable to recall the actual events. And they were mostly of the kind in which politicians had a grouse and left party A to join party B on purely selfish grounds. They chose to call them principles.

I think the railway resignation business deserves to be mentioned here at the risk of repeating at least one incident. Though that incident in itself was so gloriously memorable that it should be talked about more frequently in order to dispel the gloom created by our politics and the prevailing economic depression.

Mr Lal Bahadur Shastri (before he became prime minister of India and went to war with Pakistan in September 1965) was railway minister when a tragic railway accident took place. He accepted responsibility and immediately resigned.

Only a few days later there was an equally tragic railway accident in Pakistan and there was a clamour in the opposition for Mian Jafar Shah, the minister concerned, to hand in his resignation. Speaking in the National Assembly, Mian Sahib said, “Some ill-advised persons want me to emulate Mr Shastri’s example. Let me tell them that I am a Muslim and will never follow in the footsteps of a kafir.”

This happened in President Ayub’s time. Coming nearer to the present, there was a serious rail collision at Jamshoro when Ms Benazir Bhutto was prime minister for the first time. As related by an eyewitness, the then railway minister, one Zafar Leghari from Sindh, took his courage in both hands, and during a cabinet meeting, accepted responsibility and offered to resign.

At that moment, Ms Bhutto was giving some instructions to an aide and she did not hear what Mr Leghari had said, and the offer passed into history. He didn’t repeat it, for as they say, golden words are never repeated. But maybe his heroic act is recorded in the minutes of that particular cabinet meeting.

Then came railway minister Hazar Khan Bijarani and another terrible accident took place. Probably it never occurred to Mr Bijarani that this could be an occasion for him to hand in his resignation. He promptly took “strong disciplinary action” against the officials involved and the matter rested at that. Maybe he had read somewhere that when Mian Jafar Shah made that historic remark, he had also said, “I was neither driving the engine nor was I the pointsman on duty. So where does the question of my resignation come in?”

Since then there have been many railway accidents, almost one every month, but no railway minister has been foolish enough to voluntarily give up the post.

It’s not that there are no men of principles in Pakistan willing to leave a prestigious and lucrative berth when faced by a crisis of conscience. Happily there is no shortage of such brave people, but unhappily they are not to be found among politicians, and rarely among bureaucrats.

Do you think that if Mr Stephen Walker had been in our foreign service he would have resigned because, say, he did not agree with Pakistan’s support for one party or another in Afghanistan? No, certainly not. He would not have given up the post for anything and would have continued his hectic efforts (with the help of friendly and influential politicians) to get a posting in western Europe. But then this would have been a different Stephen Walker, born and bred in Pakistan.

And now transplant tourism

By Zubeida Mustafa


IT IS ironical that at a time when the Pakistan government has dismally failed to promote the tourist trade, some unethical transplant surgeons in Lahore and Islamabad have succeeded in firmly placing the country on the world map of ‘transplant tourism’.

This is not something to be proud of as it is bringing a bad name to the country and also its medical profession.

For those not familiar with this term, it may be pointed out that coined by a medical anthropologist from Berkeley, Nancy Scheper-Hughes, this kind of tourism implies trafficking of the poor to provide organs to wealthy patients of endstage kidney failure. The oiling person makes a pre-arranged trip to the country offering such a transplant, undergoes tests and surgery — often shoddily done — for the graft of an organ purchased through a middleman, stays for a week or so for post-operative care and then flies back home.

All this is included in a package deal which costs anything from a few thousand to some hundred thousand dollars. The three elements that are present in every deal are the poverty of a donor, the desperation of a rich organ failure patient and the cupidity of an unscrupulous surgeon who has forgotten the Hippocratic oath he took when he graduated from medical school.

This has become a racket in Pakistan because of the extremely easy availability of cheap organs — after all we have nearly 50 million people officially classified as poor in the country. In the absence of any law to regulate organ donation and transplantation, society is left only with its ethical values and sensitivities to determine how this practice is to be dealt with. And as we know ethics is not really our forte.

Hence the need for a law, which is being pushed for relentlessly by the Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplantation since the 1990s. Initially, when the demand for a law for deceased organ donation was made, the director of SIUT, Dr Adib Rizvi, was more concerned about the shortage of organs in the country. According to him there are 15,000 patients with endstage kidney failure in Pakistan in any given year and only 2,000 or so receive an organ. Farming organs from the dead would increase the availability of organs and save life.

For 12 years, Dr Rizvi and his colleagues have campaigned for the law to be passed and a bill introduced in the Senate in 1994 has not been adopted, one presumes, because the legislators fear that its social, cultural and religious implications would disturb a section of society. The draft lays down internationally prescribed stringent guidelines for determining brain death to ensure that it is not misused. With the passage of time it has become clear that these fears were unfounded.

In 1998 and then in 2005 the families of two young people donated their organs when they were declared brain dead after a traffic accident. In their lifetime they had expressed the wish to become organ donors. The reservation that people may have initially felt has gradually melted away as ulema have come forward to express support for the concepts of brain death, deceased organ donation and transplantation.

The situation has now assumed a new urgency, thanks to the transplant tourism business. In the international seminar that SIUT organised last week to draw attention to the law waiting to be adopted, the focus was equally, if not more, on the kidney trade that has sprung up in the country in a big way. In recent years, the media has reported prolifically on villages where people survive on one kidney having sold their other organ to pay their debts. With donors so readily available here, patients do not have to go far for a healthy organ.

It is the unethical dimension of this business that makes it so repugnant. How can one ever justify organ sale on the ground that it helps a poor person tide over his debt and overcome poverty? If the argument were to be accepted, then can we support trafficking of human beings to eliminate poverty? Justice Sabihuddin Ahmad, the chief justice of Sindh, who presided over the international seminar, pointedly asked this question.

Besides, the sale of organs does not alleviate poverty as it has been discovered time and again because the donor gets only a fraction of the money that changes hands and he continues to be trapped in debt. He may also end up poorer in terms of health since he does not receive the after care he should. He is worse off in terms of dignity and self respect.

A survey in Iran, where paid organ donation is strictly controlled by the government, found 94 per cent of such donors saying they suffer from a sense of shame after the act and 85 per cent said they would say no if given another chance. This is contrary to the satisfaction the related live donors derive from an act of altruism.

Therefore, a law that bans the sale of organs is the need of the hour. The human organs and tissue transplant bill that is a revised version of the earlier bill prescribes a punishment of not less than five years and a fine of not less than Rs 500,000 for people involved in this crime.

As we strive to move in this direction, there are some health professionals in the West calling for legalisation of the sale of organs. Last month, the Economist of London argued powerfully in support of legalising the sale of organs under official supervision. This would eliminate the black-marketing in organs and ensure that the removal and transplantation of organs are done in a risk-free manner with proper screening and tissue matching, the paper argued. Some transplant surgeons in Britain have made a similar demand, citing Iran as an example. But surveys in Iran have pointed to the negative psychological effects on a person who sells his organs.

Hence it is perverse to argue for legalising the organ market. Even in Britain there is a strong section of the medical profession that opposes this “commodification of the human body”, as one surgeon called it derisively. We know all too well that in our conditions legalising the sale of organs will not check the unscrupulous practices that accompany the trade.

It is always the weaker section of humanity that suffers the most when the so-called magic of the market is allowed to operate, as is happening now. The rampant corruption and economic inequities in this country will preempt the market from activating its own regulatory mechanism. The government must intervene to protect the poor.

A strained alliance

THE Nato alliance has been confounding prophets of its demise ever since the Cold War ended 15 years ago. For much of that time the military pact has played an unlikely but invaluable role as mentor to the formerly communist nations of Europe, granting 10 of them membership after requiring them to build democratic institutions.

For the past several years it has played an increasingly important role in Afghanistan: Since the summer, Nato has led the fight against the Taliban in the unstable south, routing a large concentration of insurgents near Kandahar in the biggest battle in its history.

The sceptics were nevertheless back in force as Nato began its biennial summit meeting in Riga, Latvia, yesterday. They argue that despite Nato’s battlefield success, Afghanistan is not looking good: The very fact that the Taliban has been able to infiltrate large parts of the south and stage major attacks on Western forces is one bad sign, along with a large increase in the production of poppies for opium, which funds insurgents and criminals. More than 90 percent of Nato’s casualties have been borne by just three countries — Canada, Britain and the United States — which has created political problems on several home fronts as well as resentment toward those governments that refuse to send their troops to the south or that restrict the missions they can undertake.

Nato’s democracy nursery is also in trouble. Western European governments suffering from “expansion fatigue” are resisting the entry of new countries into the process — including several neighbours of Russia that badly need protection from the neo-imperialism of Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin. Several Balkan countries that were already promised eventual membership are in danger of getting stuck halfway.

These are worrisome developments. Fortunately, there were signs at the summit that Nato’s members will, as they often have before, do what is needed just before it’s too late. The alliance’s top commander, Marine Gen. James L. Jones, reported that a new appeal to governments for more troops and fewer restrictions in Afghanistan has yielded about 2,000 more soldiers who could be dispatched to the south. Poland will deploy a 1,000-member rapid reaction force early next year.

In a speech in Riga, President Bush spelled out a US aim to bring Croatia, Albania and Macedonia into Nato by 2008 and to work toward membership for Georgia — a democracy that Russia is doing its best to destabilise. Nato Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer rightly pointed to the need for the alliance to step up development and reconstruction operations in Afghanistan, so that areas cleared of the Taliban will have a shot at stabilising. If Nato’s leaders can follow through on those commitments and objectives, the alliance could defy the prophets of its doom once more.

—The Washington Post