DAWN - Opinion; February 07, 2009

Published February 7, 2009

Obama and Iran

By A.G. Noorani

IN a brilliant insight into human nature, Dicey, a great authority on the unwritten British constitution, wrote: “People sometimes ask the idle question why the Pope does not introduce this or that reform? The true answer is that a revolutionist is not the kind of man who becomes a Pope, and that the man who becomes a Pope has no wish to be a revolutionist.”

President Obama has wasted no time in indicating the limits within which he will alter the foreign policy he inherited; especially on Iran. “I would never take a military option off the table,” he once said. On Jan 26, he told Al Arabiya with an air of magnanimity that “if countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fists, they will find an extended hand from us”. This is insolent.

It is the US which has treated Iran, besides some others, with a clenched fist. Will he ask Congress to repeal the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act of 1996 and end the US’ covert action against Iran? The act imposes sanctions on any person who has made an investment of $40m or more, which the president determines, “directly and significantly contributed to the enhancement of Iran’s ability to develop petroleum resources of Iran”. Even the Europeans resent this.

On Feb 15, 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice unveiled an $85m programme to overthrow Iran’s government. Before leaving the White House President Bush declined Israel’s request for specialised bunker-busting bombs it wanted for an attack on Iran’s main nuclear complex. But, David E Sanger of The New York Times reported, he “told the Israelis that he had authorised new covert action intended to sabotage Iran’s suspected effort to develop nuclear weapons”. In December 2007, a new assessment by 16 US spy agencies, the National Intelligence Estimate, concluded that Iran had halted its nuclear programme in 2003 that remained frozen. No one talks of Israel’s 200 nuclear warheads.

The administration’s foreign policy agenda says “it supports tough and direct diplomacy with Iran without preconditions”. It then listed the conditions. “Now is the time to use the power of American diplomacy to pressure Iran to stop their illicit nuclear programme, support for terrorism, and threats towards Israel. Obama and Biden will offer the Iranian regime a choice. If Iran abandons its nuclear programme and support for terrorism, we will offer incentives like membership in the World Trade Organisation, economic investments and a move towards normal diplomatic relations. If Iran continues its troubling behaviour, we will step up our economic pressure and political isolation.” This is not an extended hand. It is a clenched fist. Dennis Ross and Gary Samore who will deal with Iran most probably are known hawks.

On May 4, 2003 Iran made an offer which, had it been accepted, would have altered the course of history. It offered to end its support to Hamas and Islamic Jihad and press them to cease attacks on Israel; support the disarmament of Hezbollah and transform it into a purely political party; open up the nuclear programme completely to intrusive international inspections in order to alleviate any fears of weaponisation; and sign the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (which it eventually did).

It also offered extensive American involvement in the programme as a further guarantor and goodwill gesture and offered full cooperation against all terrorist organisations — above all, Al Qaeda. On Iraq, Iran would work actively with the US to support political stabilisation and the establishment of democratic institutions.

Iran further offered to accept the Beirut declaration of the Arab League, the Saudi peace plan from March 2002 in which the Arab states offered to make peace collectively with Israel, recognising and normalising relations with the Jewish state in return for Israel’s agreement to withdraw from all occupied territories and accept a fully independent Palestinian state, an equitable division of Jerusalem, and an equitable resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem. It would formally recognise the two-state solution and consider itself at peace with Israel. Iran wanted the members of the Mujahideen-i-Khalq Organisation (MKO), an Iranian terrorist organisation based in Iraq, handed over in return for Al Qaeda operatives it held.

The Swiss ambassador to Iran, Tim Guldimann, personally took the proposal to the US. He and his government were rebuked by the US for their pains. On the nuclear issue Iran made a comprehensive offer to the EU3 (UK, France and Germany) on March 23, 2005 after they had concluded in Paris an interim accord on Nov 15, 2004 to facilitate negotiations for a final settlement.

But the EU3, prodded by the US, no longer sought guarantees. It sought the end of Iran’s programme. Its proposal of Aug 8, 2005 asked Iran to abandon its plans for an independent nuclear fuel cycle and depend forever on western pledges of fuel supply. It was a breach of the Paris Accord.

Iran’s letter to the UN secretary-general on May 13, 2008 renewed previous offers. The P5 of the Security Council, plus Germany, gave a counter-offer on June 12, 2008.

President Obama must earnestly grasp the nettle. Peace in Afghanistan and Iraq. Iraq depends on Iran. Its nuclear programme is a symbol of national pride.

The DG of the IAEA, Mohammed El Baradei went to the heart of the matter. In an interview to an American publicist in mid-2005, he said that Iran was seeking a grand bargain in exchange for concessions on the nuclear issue. “The prize they seek, above all, is better relations with the US.” Obama should unclench America’s fist.

The writer is a lawyer and an author.

The nightmare must end

By Beena Sarwar

OF the many challenges Pakistan’s elected government faces perhaps the most menacing and deep-rooted is Talibanisation — a phenomenon identified earlier on by the then exiled Afghan government’s acting foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, on Sept 21, 2000, in his address to the United Nations General Assembly.

Pleading for urgent measures to combat this threat, Abdullah wondered “how far the evil threat of Talibanism shall expand … before the conscience of the international community would be awakened, not to just consider, but to adopt immediate and drastic preventive measures.”

His warnings fell on deaf ears. Today, Pakistan bears the brunt of the Taliban fallout, thanks to short-sighted Pakistanis fixated on creating an illusionary ‘strategic depth’ and Americans who thought routing the Taliban militarily in Afghanistan, thanks to superior technology, would ‘root out the evil’. All it did was push their support base underground for a while, even as the political vacuum created by mainstream Pakistani party leaders being in exile allowed the Taliban-sympathetic Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (also referred to by Benazir Bhutto as the Mullah Military Alliance) to win elections and strengthen these forces.

They have been gaining ground since Pakistan’s creation, with formulations like the Objectives Resolution. The process accelerated with successive governments pandering to right-wing ideologues who practically took over the country during the Afghan war. Then it suited Washington and its allies, including the Zia regime, to arm and train the Mujahideen and initiate what Dr Eqbal Ahmad called ‘jihad international’.

Writers and artists also courageously took on these elements. The dozens of works exhibited recently by the Peshawar-based cartoonist Zahoor at The Second Floor in Karachi included one dated Dec 23, 2007 in which he personifies a cloud as an armed, bearded man (‘Taliban’ inscribed on his turban) hovering ominously overhead, moving from Darra towards Peshawar. Another cartoon titled ‘Scenic Swat Valley’ shows a mean-faced, hirsute volcano overseeing a pile of burning television sets.

Perhaps most prescient was the short-story writer Ghulam Abbas who during another time of ‘enlightened moderation’ (Ayub Khan’s) predicted the logical conclusion of organised bigotry and fanaticism in Hotel Mohenjodaro, a futuristic story in which guests at the fictional Hotel Mohenjodaro celebrate Pakistan becoming the first country to send a man to the moon (Abbas wrote it in 1967 or so, before Neil Armstrong’s feat).

Mullahs around the country condemn the astronaut’s act as heretical. They whip up a frenzy that topples the government, grab power, destroy universities, schools and libraries and impose strict gender segregation. They ban music, art, English and modern inventions — but don’t mind using these inventions (loudspeakers then, Internet, television and FM radio stations now) for their own purpose. Their infighting leads to anarchy. Pakistan is invaded and destroyed. Years later, a tour guide points to the spot in a desert “where, before the enemy struck, stood the Hotel Mohenjodaro.”

The Taliban have already reduced many hotels and educational institutions to rubble in Swat and other previously idyllic areas. Recovery from the nightmare they have unleashed will take much time, once it is over. And over it must be, later if not sooner. In the long term, as Pervez Hoodbhoy predicts, “the forces of irrationality will cancel themselves out because they act at random whereas reason pulls only in one direction.”

Those who justify the Taliban uprising in Pakistan as an anti-imperialist movement forget that since the Taliban first swept into Afghanistan in 1996 (with the blessings of the Pakistani establishment), they have been a threat to women, pluralism and democracy in the region. Their oppressive order in Afghanistan pre-dates the American invasion of Iraq, bombing of Afghanistan, and drone attacks in Pakistan.

Although many Afghans initially welcomed the Taliban for their ‘speedy justice’, oppressive measures like closing girls’ schools and pushing women out of the public sphere added to the people’s miseries. Forced to give up their jobs, thousands of women, the sole bread-earners for their families, had three choices: beggary, starvation or prostitution.

Pushed out of Afghanistan in 2001, the Taliban and their ideological extensions began attempting to enforce this order in Pakistan. Over the past months they have closed or demolished scores of girls’ schools in Swat and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), forcing thousands of girls to discontinue their education.

The diary of a seventh-grade Swat schoolgirl writing under the pen name ‘Gul Makai’ (BBC Urdu Online) bears poignant testimony to these horrors. On Jan 3, she wrote, “I had a terrible dream yesterday with military helicopters and the Taliban. I have had such dreams since the launch of the military operation in Swat…. I was afraid going to school because the Taliban had banned all girls from attending schools.” That day, only 11 out of 27 students attended class because of the Taliban’s edict. Three of her friends had already moved to Peshawar, Lahore and Rawalpindi with their families. In the latest installment, her own family has moved to Islamabad.

Here in Karachi, even my seventh-grade old daughter argues that all this has nothing to do with Islam.

What it has to do with is territorial control and power. As the historian Rajesh Kadian notes, most of Asia’s major countries are “frayed at the edges with central authority barely maintaining the functions, power and dignity of the state”. Pakistan’s “frayed fringe” Fata was strategically important to the West during the Afghan war and after 9/11. The exception was “the extraordinary valley of Swat”, the cradle of Tibetan Buddhism, the home of Shah Mir whose piety converted the Kashmiris to Islam, boasting the highest literacy rates in the area especially among women. By targeting this peaceful, settled area with its diverse cultural and religious traditions, the Taliban have made life hell for its residents. They have also challenged the writ of the state by establishing their own parallel system.

This would have been impossible if the heavily armed and trained Pakistan Army meant business. Instead, they say they are unable to even neutralise the FM radio station from which daily announcements are made of the Taliban’s next targets. The army’s recently stated resolve to work in tandem with the civilian government counters public perceptions about its reluctance to do just that. Somewhere, the will seems to be lacking. It will continue to remain lacking unless those who control Pakistan realise that the target of these ‘jihadi’ forces is not just to control some areas, but to overrun the entire country, just as Ghulam Abbas predicted.

The writer is a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Karachi.


Poison of Guantanamo must be drawn

By Simon Jenkins

GORDON Brown should call Barack Obama and say, “Mr President, our predecessors left us with a great steaming pile of ordure called the war on terror. It is going to blight our works, spoil our reputations and, incidentally, undermine liberty. Let us join now in declaring a giant inquiry into every murky corner of this so-called war and come clean. Let’s do it now.”

Instead the miserable saga unfolds its horrors. This week the UK foreign secretary, David Miliband, was induced by forces of darkness to give the feeblest excuse for stopping the high court in London from disclosing details of the alleged torture of a British resident entombed for four years in Guantanamo Bay. He said that disclosure would do “serious and lasting harm” to the exchange of information with the CIA. In other words it would embarrass the Americans and they might deny intelligence in return. This, Miliband said, was not a threat but “a fact”.

It is simply unbelievable that the CIA, were it to discover that terrorists were about to bomb London, would refuse to pass the information to MI5 (British counter intelligence) out of spite. Besides, the details reluctantly kept secret by the court specifically did not include “intelligence material”, which Miliband said might be jeopardised. They concerned acts by interrogators that do not enjoy immunity and are criminal under international law. On Wednesday night the foreign secretary denied he had been threatened by the Americans and said, “We do not turn a blind eye to torture.” That is exactly what he had done.

This is all part of a terrible mess. The UK home secretary, Jacqui Smith, is being pressed to explain the apparent complicity of British agents in a dreadful case of Pakistani torture including fingernail extraction. The British ministry of defence is also under pressure to explain the use of its airfields for “rendition” flights of suspects to places where they could be covertly tortured. Every time the carpet is lifted, rot appears.

When I was a schoolboy our staple reading was books recounting how our heroic boys resisted lurid violence at the wartime hands of Germans and Japanese. Had you told us that British ministers would one day be standing in the House of Commons and making squirming apologies for similar treatment by “our side”, we would have assumed that an appalled nation would rise up and damn them. Not so.

I accept that the civil rights movement can seem obsessed with torture, in preference to other horrors of war such as bombing, ethnic cleansing or summary execution. Some victims may hype their mistreatment to win sympathy or gain publicity. But torture is a recognised crime, militarily unreliable and dehumanising to its perpetrators. The accumulated evidence of its use in the war on terror is beyond reasonable doubt. It merits not just condemnation, but inquiry and prosecution.

The columnist Bernard Levin once wrote that espionage damaged the brain of all involved in it. Immersed in the Cold War’s convoluted game of bluff and double-bluff, it distanced its practitioners from reality and drove them mad. Dedicated to secrecy, they behaved as if any secret had to be important and anything important had to be secret.

An absolute certainty is that Guantanamo Bay and its offshoots at Bagram in Afghanistan and Abu Ghraib in Iraq will soon offer historians and film-makers a goldmine of the grotesque. Unless the Americans swiftly raze them, every inch will be searched for evidence of monstrous practices, before being turned over to Hollywood, lock, stock and thumbscrew. Brown and Miliband sat round the cabinet table when all this was going on, but they have no need now to taint themselves with Guantanamo, as did Tony Blair with his nonsense about it being just a legal “anomaly”. They could reasonably dismiss it as history, a neoconservative brainstorm which, as with McCarthyism, drove a section of the American establishment up an authoritarian blind alley, before it was dragged back to sanity by the electorate.

On Thursday, Miliband repeated the defence his department put up last year against the prosecution of BAE Systems for corruption in the Saudi arms deal investigation. He again said that a criminal investigation should not proceed if it “risked national security”. The abuse of this phrase, now applied to anything from memoir censorship to parking restrictions, has become a sick joke.

From the 1986 suppression of the book Spycatcher to last year’s protected bank accounts of Saudi playboys, “national security” has regularly been advanced to conceal the incompetence of the intelligence service or protect it from embarrassment. Britain’s involvement in Guantanamo Bay was always tangential and some law officers, such as the then attorney-general, Lord Goldsmith, publicly distanced themselves from it. But the prison was a feature of the hysterical overreaction of American and British governments to 9/11 and has remained so ever since.

The overreaction led to two ongoing wars, the use of political assassination and torture, detention without trial, random arrest in foreign parts and extraordinary rendition. All these have stripped the West of moral integrity in the Muslim world and blighted foreign policy for more than seven years.

For all the protestations of the Obama regime that “the war on terror” is over — echoed by Miliband himself — it is not. It is still being waged from the plains of Helmand to the courts of justice in London. The poison of Guantanamo still courses through ministerial veins. Bad habits die hard.

That poison must be drawn if it is not indefinitely to corrupt western liberty and thus, in the all-too-real phrase, “do the terrorist’s work for him”.

A start could be made by Brown overruling his foreign secretary, standing up to the CIA’s blackmail and freeing British courts to investigate the truth of a sorry chapter in Anglo-American relations.

—The Guardian, London



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