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Rhetoric versus reality

By Imtiaz Gul

The Friday Times, Feb 24,2012

The Iran-Afghanistan-Pakistan summit on counterterrorism in Islamabad was high on rhetoric and low on substance.

The backdrop to the trilateral summit on February 16 and 17 is the US desperation to work out an exit strategy of its preliminary so-called "confidence-building" measures. On the face of it, the summit offered interesting cocktail of individual, bilateral and multi-lateral interests. Washington is breathing hot and cold on Iran, probably using Israel as a scare-crow. Both have avowedly been averse to the Iranian nuclear programme, and want Tehran to wind back its nuclear weapons endeavours.

President Hamid Karzai wants Pakistan to make up with America and reopen the Nato supply routes as soon as possible. He also seeks Pakistani support in tackling the Taliban in a separate dialogue which apparently leaves the US out (because he sounds convinced that Pakistan holds important Taliban leaders).

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is eager for Iran to break out of its heroic isolation through an economic opening with Pakistan and India (because of the latest US-led economic sanctions). In his usual lofty rhetoric, Ahmadinejad promised barter trade - trade in local currency which he thinks can be raised to $10 billion a year. Iran even offered deferred payment on gas it will export to Pakistan via the proposed $1.25 billion pipeline. 

President Asif Ali Zardari, on the face of it, wants to avert economic collapse in Pakistan by leaning on Iran's gas pipeline and electricity supply into Balochistan. Both Iran and Pakistan think their nuclear programmes are under threat. Zardari also assured Iran of not allowing Pakistrani territory to be used for subversion in Iran by the Sunni extremist group Jundullah.

The US continues to threaten with punitive measures if Pakistan goes ahead with what Cameron Munter, the US ambassador, dismisses as a non-feasible gas pipeline project. Despite rejecting the American opposition and reassuring Iran of completing its part of the pipeline, Pakistan is still handicapped by its financial limitations. So is Iran, whose oil exports have reportedly declined by over 20 percent following the new sanctions.

But can the mutual vows of cooperation exchanged during the Islamabad summit translate into reality? It is very difficult, if not impossible, because of decades of mistrust and the American predominance of the regional geo-politics. Counterterrorism - an interest common to almost all nations that matter - may be an easier subject if the three get together strategically, or joined by other regional powers as well. Ground realities, more so of US-led global geopolitics, nevertheless argue against any expansion in the trilateral relations.

Pakistan's relationship with Afghanistan and India has yet to overcome years of misgivings and mistrust. Incidentally, all but three regional players - Pakistan, Afghanistan and India - have in recent years nudged closer to the Russia-China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), an entity that was originally established to counter terrorism. Also, Afghanistan's stability can, theoretically, be best guaranteed by its immediate neighbours India, Pakistan, Iran, the Central Asian states and perhaps China. But will India's strategic and commercial interests allow it to foster closer relations with other SCO members to the displeasure of the US, which has its own geo-strategic goals ably and eagerly supported by the greed of Corporate America that largely shapes American foreign policies?

In the current circumstances, it looks improbable that the Pakistani president could act independent of the US when pursuing a regional agenda involving Iran. The same goes for President Karzai, who owes his survival thus far to the sweet will of Washington. His spat with Pakistani leaders (deliver Mullah Omar!) during official discussions amply demonstrated his deep-seated mistrust of the Pakistani establishment. He considers the Haqqani Network and Mullah Omar's Taliban close allies of this establishment.

Also, Iran is not really comfortable with reports of Jundullah using Pakistani territory for terrorism on the Iranian soil. While both countries may be cooperating on this count, it is a pretty tough proposition for a crisis-ridden, porous Pakistan to control and neutralize people and groups who may be sheltering Jundullah terrorists, who may well be receiving assistance from Saudi sources as well. Destabilising Iran is perhaps a common US-Saudi goal - if seen in the historical context.

Pakistan and Iran may currently share a vision on future economic cooperation, but they lack the requisite international facilitating environment for realising that vision. 

Imtiaz Gul is the Executive Director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and is currently a Fellow of International House of Japan/Japan Foundation, Tokyo

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk