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The earthquake next door

February 26, 2000

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FEW election results in the recent past have had as profound an impact on geopolitics as those that have emerged in Iran this week. The rout of the conservative clergy signals to the rest of the world that Iran is ready to take its rightful place in the international community after a 20-year interregnum. But it is in the region that the shock-waves will be felt most strongly. After years of extreme rhetoric and active support for radical Islamic movements, if President Khatami manages to rein in the more fundamentalist elements in Iran, his country will become a major force for moderation.

But even if the contradictions between the reformists and the hardliners take some time to resolve, the direction modern Iran will take in the foreseeable future is clear. With 70 per cent of the population under 30, the entrenched theocratic order will not survive for long in its current form. However, this is the inevitable path revolutions have taken in recent history: after the initial ideological zeal has worn off, reality asserts itself and compromises are inevitably made. All revolutionary movements in the last century have travelled this route, so recent events in Iran should not surprise us.

Given its oil wealth and the energy and talent of the Iranian people, there is little doubt that this ancient and proud civilization will soon take its place as a major regional power. One of the first priorities President Khatami and his reformist allies have set themselves is the normalization of relations with the United States as well as other western countries. Iran was always an important market as well as a source of oil and gas under the Shah; now that oil has crossed the $30 per barrel mark, western companies are panting to get back and do business. There is little doubt that US sanctions will be lifted in the near future and the Iranian economy will realize its true potential.

Once relations with the West are normalized, Iran will have less time and sympathy for a chaotic Pakistan that is supporting the begotted Taliban in Afghanistan, and failing to protect its own Shia minority against repeated attacks by extremist organizations. Once the revolutionary rhetoric and fervour in Tehran are toned down, Iran will become more likely to support stability and peace so that it can rebuild its shattered economy. Inevitably, its relations with other powerful neighbours like India and China will improve even further.

In short, Iran will rapidly become a modern, progressive Muslim country while we continue our march backwards. Indeed, an immediate outcome of the election results in Iran is that we stand further isolated. Together with Afghanistan, Pakistan is viewed as a haven for fundamentalists and terrorists. If we want to avoid being branded a rogue state, we will have to take steps to demonstrate that we do not support terrorism, no matter what the cause.

The ban on the display of arms is a good first step, and one that should have been taken much earlier by elected governments. But while General Musharraf has the means to take on the extremist groups and armed militias, he has yet to demonstrate the will to do so. As long as they are not disarmed and disbanded, they will continue to pose a threat to our citizens, as well as to Pakistan's image and our external relations.

In its current issue, a Karachi monthly magazine has interviewed a number of leaders of alleged terrorist groups. One of them demanded that the West needs to make a distinction between jihad and terrorism. This is unlikely to happen because one man's jihad is another man's terrorism. When the Mukti Bahini activists were fighting the Pakistan army in 1971, they were termed bandits and terrorists and worse. The maquis in France and the partisans in Italy who resisted German occupation were hunted down by the Wehrmacht as terrorists, and yet they were heroes in the eyes of their people.

It should be clear to all of us that our perceived role in supporting extremists in Afghanistan and Kashmir is winning us no friends. The fact is that there is an international network of such groups operating in much of the Muslim world. Governments in these countries are deeply disturbed by the fact that many of these extremists receive training in camps located on Pakistani and Afghan soil, and then attempt to destabilize them. Indeed, it is now extremely difficult for Pakistanis to get visas to visit most Arab countries.

We must realize that we are going against the norm in our supposedly covert support for these groups. Nobody abroad accepts the official line that our backing is only moral. Moral support does not result in the level of fighting we saw in Kargil last year. We need to understand that we are not powerful enough to insist that we will play by our own rules, forgetting that we are part of an international system and community that does not countenance terrorism. Saying that country X or Y gets away with it does not absolve us of our responsibility to behave according to accepted norms.

Returning to Iran, we see how a country gradually resumes its rightful place in the community of nations while we are rapidly losing ours. There is a growing realization in even the most backward nations of the world that cooperation and interdependence are now the way forward, not isolation and insularity. The vast majority of Iranians have voted to get their country back into the global system. In Pakistan, despite the fact that religious parties have always been thoroughly rejected at the polls, they and their more extreme brethren have managed to hijack the national agenda to their own ends while successive governments have remained supine spectators.

Pakistani leaders are fond of repeating that our relations with China and Iran are "eternal", and their support for our position on Kashmir is open-ended. This is living in a world of delusion. Both are moving away from rigidly ideological policies to greater pragmatism and a desire to improve their economies. For this, they need to work with inimical powers like the United States. But as we know, there are no permanent friends or enemies in international relations; only permanent interests.

It is high time we realized that we have interests other than Kashmir, and that we cannot count on the few friends we have left to endlessly support us in our hugely expensive and seemingly futile quest.