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Khatami visit a turning point

December 23, 2002

ISLAMABAD, Dec 22: The three-day official visit of President Seyed Mohammad Khatami to Pakistan that begins on Monday signals a promising turning point in Pakistan-Iran relations soured by Islamabad’s pre-9/11 Afghan policy.

Khatami’s visit to Pakistan, his first ever, has been long overdue. President Pervez Musharraf had extended an invitation to him during his visit to Tehran in November 1999. One explanation given by the Iranians for the ‘belated’ visit is that Khatami being a “man of democracy” was reluctant to engage with a military regime.

Incidentally, Iran was the first country that President Musharraf paid a visit to after taking over as the country’s chief executive. A fact reflective of the priority and importance Islamabad attaches to its ties with its neighbour.

Khatami’s current visit is an outcome of joint efforts by Islamabad and Tehran to improve their relationship that had been strained through the 90s, largely due to the policy differences over Afghanistan. The 9/11 terror attacks and subsequent fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan paved the way for mending of bilateral ties. In the last three years a series of high-level bilateral visits have been exchanged between the two countries to improve trade and defence-related cooperation.

In June this year, Iran’s top National Security Adviser Hassan Ruhani led a high-powered delegation to Pakistan. More recently, President Pervez Musharraf had a meeting with President Khatami on the sidelines of the 7th ECO Summit in Istanbul on Oct 14.

Earlier this month, Pakistan’s foreign secretary visited Tehran as part of preparations for the bilateral consultations. The Pakistan-Iran Joint Economic Commission met in Islamabad last week after two and-a-half years.

Iranian and Pakistani officials remain hopeful that relations would normalise and return to “the good old times” or get even better.

“Wherever Khatami goes there is a turning point,” said Tehrani, the Press Counsellor at the Iranian Embassy here, referring to the promise Khatami’s visit holds for bilateral relations.

To begin with, the two governments will sign three agreements to boost trade and expand cooperation in areas of science and technology and agriculture.

Emphasizing the need to further bilateral cooperation, Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri aptly observed: “We have spent more than 50 years on photo opportunity and now we should take concrete steps to promote economic ties.” Clearly, the goodwill that exists between the two countries does not reflect in the current Pakistan-Iran trade volume.

Rafsanjani was the last Iranian head of state to visit Pakistan in 1992.

Khatami’s visit is the first by any Iranian head of state after Pakistan became the frontline state in the US-led anti-terror campaign. Also, the first after Pakistan’s close ally, the United States, dubbed Iran as the “axis of evil” along with Iraq and North Korea.

The fact that Khatami’s visit comes on the heels of US Assistant Secretary of State Christina Rocca’s visit to Pakistan, it is likely to raise questions regarding the presence of US forces on Pakistani borders that has been an irritant in Pakistan-Iran relations.

Similarly, Pakistan’s concern regarding the North-South Corridor that Iran wants to establish with India and Russia is also expected to be addressed by the leadership of both the countries The question of Muslims and Islamic countries being made the prime target in the ongoing global campaign against terrorism is likely to figure in the talks between the two sides.

Pakistani leadership has expressed the hope that Iran would play a key role in bringing India to the negotiating table to address the core issue of Kashmir. Iranians who now feel that a time has come to resolve the Kashmir issue seem willing to act as the mediator. Pakistan has also pinned hopes on Iran for further improving its relations with Afghanistan.

Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri even conveyed this to the Iranian foreign minister during their meeting in Bonn and the latter had responded to it positively.

Undoubtedly, Washington after having recently declared its suspicions about Iran’s engagement in a secret nuclear weapons programme, will be closely watching Khatami’s visit to Pakistan. Khatami discarded Washington’s nuclear fears the other day as “complete nonsense”.

The Iranian president had recently described the United States and Afghanistan’s Taliban as “the two blades of a very dangerous pair of scissors” tarnishing Islam. One blade is the Islam of the Taliban, while the other is trying to impose war, hatred, animosity and imperialism on the whole world under the pretext of fighting the Islam of Taliban,” Khatami had observed.

Iranians claim they have had more experience of the US government’s “self-serving policies”. They insist time has come for Iran, Pakistan, China and India to unite. Pointing to their geographic and strategic location one Iranian diplomat argued: “We have the basic resources, the industry and the atomic power so where is the danger?”