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Shahid R. Siddiqi: Pakistanis have great emotional attachment with the Iranian people
The Sunni Arab States do not want to see a nuclear armed Shia Iran, particularly after the fall of the Sunni government in Iraq which could potentially lead to the creation of a pro-Iran Shia regime in Iraq.
TEHRAN—The 2010 Pakistan flood was one of the most unpleasant and painful incidents of the year which attracted widespread international attention due to its extensiveness and destructive impacts. The floods started in July following heavy monsoon rains and overflow of the Indus River in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh, Punjab and Balochistan regions of Pakistan. It is estimated that more than two thousand people lost their lives and over a million homes were destroyed since the flooding began. According to the United Nations estimates, over 21 million people have been injured or displaced as a result of the devastative flood.
Pakistani journalist and former Air Force employee joined me in an interview to discuss the aftermath of the unprecedented flood which encompassed the whole of Pakistan in a matter of days and caused serious damage to the country's agriculture, industry, energy sector, transportation and utility infrastructures, and even politics. Mr. Siddiqi answered my questions about the government's management of the flood and the distribution of humanitarian aid sent by different countries to the flood-hit regions. He explained how the unanticipated disaster paralyzed Pakistan in an astonishing way that surprised the unprepared government which failed to manage the crisis appropriately. In this interview, I also seized the opportunity to ask Mr. Siddiqi some questions about the prospect of Iran - Pakistan relations and Pakistan's stance on Iran's nuclear program.
Shahid R. Siddiqi has been a broadcaster with the Radio Pakistan and the Islamabad bureau chief of the "Pakistan and Gulf Economist". His articles and political commentaries appear in the Pakistani newspapers such as Dawan, The Nation and Pakistan Herald. He is also the founder of Asian American Republican Club. Siddiqi is a frequent contributor to Foreign Policy Journal, Middle East Times and Axis of Logic.
Kourosh Ziabari: How did the government of Pakistan manage the aftermath of the recent devastating flood? Has it succeeded in preventing a humanitarian disaster from taking place in the flooded regions?
Shahid R. Siddiqi: The floods caught the Government of Pakistan totally unprepared. Unfortunately, civilian governments in Pakistan have historically failed to comprehend the importance of preparedness for disaster and relief management. This is exactly what happened with the present government. This happened in spite of the fact that an organization, Disaster Management Cell, was in place with extensive experience from handling the massive earthquake that hit the Northern Areas of Pakistan in 2005. This otherwise lack of preparedness was a direct consequence of general mismanagement at the top levels of the government.
These were the most widespread and disastrous floods, the like of which had never before been witnessed in this region. The scale of destruction did not dawn upon the government until much later, until after the waters had inundated Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and hit Punjab. And by the time the government began to respond, millions of people had been uprooted and tremendous losses had occurred. According to one estimate these floods have caused a disaster bigger than Haiti and Tsunami combined.
The losses were colossal. Twenty million people were affected. 20% of the country, mostly farmland, went under water. Millions of cattle died, standing crops of rice, cereals and vegetables were destroyed, enormous quantities of stored wheat grain was lost to flood waters and the agricultural infrastructure was greatly damaged. The breakdown in transportation caused food shortages all over the country resulting in prohibitively high prices.
The humanitarian disaster was humongous and beyond the capacity of the civil administration to handle. The military did a commendable job of rescue and relief. It quietly moved in to fill the void due to the absence of the civil administration and worked tirelessly round the clock with heads down. Had it not been for it, the humanitarian disaster would have been much greater.
The flood waters originated in the mountainous catchment areas in the north and flowed south overflowing the banks of several smaller rivers to eventually join the River Indus, overflowing it and causing all adjoining areas to come under water. The flood has now subsided in the north - in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab, and the water is now passing through the southern province of Sindh to drain into the Arabian Sea. Hopefully by the middle of October the waters will recede in the South too.
As life in the north returns to normal and people return to their devastated towns, villages and homes, the more difficult and capital intensive phase of rehabilitation begins. The government is short of funds. Aid is coming in but is not enough. The UN is trying to raise funds for rehabilitation but the response is slow. The economic situation in the country is bad. People struggle to keep their body and soul together and raise a shelter over their heads to resume their lives.
KZ: Many countries have dispatched convoys of humanitarian aid containing foodstuff, medicine, clothing and other basic necessities to be distributed among the flood-hit families. Has the process of distribution been satisfactory?
SS: The distribution of relief goods was undertaken mainly by the military and the NGOs. The civil administration joined in later. Although the distribution was handled quite efficiently, the aid supplies were found inadequate at times. The very scale of disaster, very large areas involved, and difficulties of transportation and distribution issues due to inaccessibility of marooned populations, complicated the relief work. There was acute shortage of helicopters, which were eventually diverted by the Americans from Afghanistan and which came very handy in search, rescue and supply droppings.
KZ: Which countries provided the most help to Pakistan? Has the extent of international aid been sufficiently helpful to the families grappled with the flood?
SS: The largest chunk of aid in dollar terms came from the U.S. The UN has also launched a big effort at raising funds to help out in the rehabilitation phase but the response of the international community is slow. It is gratifying to see that India also contributed to the UN fund. The European Union has also made a sizable donation.
Given the scale of destruction, it is beyond the capacity of Pakistan to help rehabilitate the affected people in their homes and enable them to make a new beginning. International assistance is critically important.
KZ: So far, Iran has dispatched 13 convoys of humanitarian aid to Pakistan. How do you estimate Iran's assistance to Pakistan? What's the general viewpoint of the people with regards to Iran's helps?
SS: Iranian aid convoys were much appreciated at the government level as well as by the people. They came very handy in meeting the needs of the affectees. The consignment was handed over to the military for distribution.
Pakistanis have great deal of emotional attachment with the Iranian people and they also hold the Ummah in very high regard. From the days of former King Reza Shah, although not for the love of the Shah himself, Pakistan had very close bilateral relations both at the government and the people's level. Even a small gesture from Iran, whether by the government or the people, is therefore much appreciated.
A point to note is that close historical ties existed between Iran and India much before the British colonized India. Substantial migration took place from Iran into India and even today such old immigrants have kept their ancestral identities alive by using surnames such as Mashhadi, Isfahani, Tabrezi, etc. Persian was the official language in India at one time and every Urdu poet or scholar worth his name thought his work to be incomplete unless he had a book or two in Persian language to his credit. There was a tremendous influence of Persian culture in the Moghul court. This brought Pakistanis very close to the Iranians.
KZ: What's your prediction for the prospect of Iran - Pakistan relations? How can these two neighboring countries contribute to the empowerment of Islamic solidarity? How can the bilateral relations between Iran and Pakistan serve the interests of the regional countries?
SS: Neither Pakistan nor Iran can change the geography of the region. Both of these people have been neighbors always and will always be, till the end of times. Over centuries they have been influenced by each other's culture, language and life style. They share the same religion and about 15% population of Pakistan is of Shia denomination, which is the official religion of Iran and which therefore looks up to Iranian Shia leadership for guidance. This explains the cultural, social and religious affinity between the two people.
On the political front, the two countries have enjoyed very close relations in the past. They were part of the SEATO and CENTO, the two U.S. sponsored military pacts, along with Iraq and Turkey back in the 1960s. The Shah was very supportive of Pakistan and when in 1965 war broke out between Pakistan and India, he opened his armory gates to Pakistan. Pakistan was able to purchase some tanks and F-86 aircraft from Iran during that period when it could not get these from other sources.
Unfortunately, relations between President General Zia and the Khomeini regime became sour. The Iranian revolutionary leadership went to the extent of refusing to receive President Zia at the head of a Muslim delegation that wanted to help negotiate a ceasefire and reconciliation between Iran and Iraq when they were at war. Although the official relations have gradually improved ever since, they could not be restored to the same level of cordiality as during the Shah and a certain distance remains. I think this is not in the self-interest of either country.
One reason for this lack of warmth on the part of Iran towards Pakistan is Pakistan's vey close relations with Saudi Arabia, which is obviously not to the liking of the Iranian regime. Then Pakistan has been closely allied to the U.S. on account of political, economic and strategic compulsions of its various regimes. Another factor that contributed to this state of relations is Pakistan's support to the Sunni Mujahedeen groups during their war against Soviet Union and later to the Saudi backed Taliban, the followers of Salafi sect.
But all said and done, it is in the interest of the two neighbors to forge a very close alliance by showing an understanding and tolerance for each other's national interests and policies. In practical terms it not possible for either country to make an about turn and reconcile and realign its policies with the other. In an environment where the West is forging its own alliances with a view to strategically dominate this region and control and harness energy resources of the Caspian Sea Basin and Central Asia, it is imperative for Iran and Pakistan, and other Islamic countries of the Middle East, to see through the game plan, shun their differences, show tolerance and forge a broader alliance in their own good.
At a time when the world is moving towards regional unions and trading blocs, why should Muslim governments of the region display a myopic approach towards safeguarding and promoting long term Muslim interests and fritter away their energies and resources in squabbling with each other and trying to pull each other down.
For the moment this seems to be a tall order. This cannot be done unless the Shia-Sunni divide among Muslim states of the region is not bridged, unless the rulers give up their petty differences, overcome their suspicions of each other, stop playing in the hands of big powers and show statesmanship. But, unfortunately, this element is entirely missing from the present crop of Muslim rulers of this region.
In the present scenario the Islamic countries of the Middle East and South West Asia are drifting apart along the Shia-Sunni divide. The Sunni Arab States do not want to see a nuclear armed Shia Iran, particularly after the fall of the Sunni government in Iraq which could potentially lead to the creation of a pro-Iran Shia regime in Iraq right in their midst, which they fear will create a strong and aggressive bloc that could destabilize them. This fear among Arab states will not serve the interests of Iran at all. The Arabs are bound to join hands with Iran's enemies to weaken it. That explains the news report that Saudi Arabia agreed to allow Israel to use its air space to attack Iran's nuclear facilities.
This acrimony between Iran and Arab states places Pakistan in a difficult situation. Pakistan does not want to see Iran attacked or be engulfed in war. It cannot also afford to give up its relations with Arab states due to the economic and political support it gets from them, which Iran will not provide.
But Pakistan is in a unique position to play an important role in bridging the gulf between Iran and the Arab world. It can help reconcile differences and allay each others' fears. Before this can happen, Pak-Iran relations will have to attain a solid footing and Iran will need to soften its rhetoric and aggressive posture to create an environment of reassurance in the Arab world.
KZ: Over the past years, Iran has been constantly exposed to the threat of a military strike on its nuclear facilities by the United States and Israel. What's the stance of Pakistani people and government in this regard?
SS: The Western threat of military strike against Iran has been a matter of great concern for an average Pakistani. He believes that not only would this cause death and destruction in a neighboring Islamic country, but it would engulf the whole region in a cycle of violence. There is also a likelihood of serious environmental disaster due to release of radioactive materials over the skies of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Pakistanis believe that Iran has the right to pursue development of nuclear energy for legitimate and peaceful purposes and that any doubt or dispute in the matter should be resolved through dialogue rather than arm twisting.
The general impression in Pakistan is that the aggressive American posture towards Iran arises out of Israeli pressure that has been brought upon the US and European allies. Israel has always been paranoid with those Muslim states that either have developed or are developing military capability to challenge Israel's might and domination, even if it is in conventional terms. It attacked and destroyed the Iraqi reactor as a preemptive action. In subsequent years it planned similar attacks against Pakistan's nuclear facilities in collusion with India, which were thwarted by Pakistan's military. And now it targets Iran because of Iran's ability to defeat Israeli aggression in the region directly and indirectly, e.g. through Shia groups in Lebanon.
The Pakistan government clearly favors dialogue and not armed confrontation as means of resolving this dispute.
KZ: United States and its allies around the world have imposed several rounds of unilateral sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program. What's your idea about this? While Israel possesses up to 200 nuclear warheads, it's Iran which is under international pressure to halt its nuclear program. What do you think about the international pressures imposed on Iran over its nuclear program?
SS: Pakistanis know very well that the U.S. does not act evenhandedly when it comes to favoring Israel. The world knows about Israel's undeclared nuclear arsenal. But neither the U.S. and nor Europe are willing to acknowledge this fact. Israel happens to be a major nuclear threat to its neighbors, yet the U.S. behaves as if neither Israel has any nuclear weapons nor does the U.S. know anything about them. When it suits the US it does not shy away from practicing double standards.
The U.S. did not act the same way with Pakistan. Pakistan was subjected to all kinds of sanctions after it exploded its bomb in response to the Indian explosion. It was only when the U.S. desperately needed Pakistan's support to fight the Taliban after 9/11 that the sanctions simply evaporated overnight.
I believe, and so do the Pakistanis generally, that the U.S. has shown indecent haste in imposing sanctions against Iran. Quite clearly diplomacy has not been given a chance. China did resist the U.S. pressure but Russia readily capitulated and voted with the U.S., which came as a surprise. Russia was supplying a nuclear reactor to Iran and—as a re-emerging power—it was expected to show some spine. The others have been forced to fall in line.
With the U.S. having donned the mantle of the sole super power, it is in a position to twist the tail of most countries which either fall in its sphere of influence or need its support in one form or the other. It utilizes this advantage to the hilt and forces its will down everyone's throat. Turkey and Mexico played a positive role and America should have given their effort a chance.
Once U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan begins and the economy shows signs of improvement, the threat to attack Iran could revive.
However, the U.S. involvement in the Afghan imbroglio and the economic meltdown makes it difficult for the U.S. to open a new front/war against Iran as of now. The U.S. has been holding Israel back for this reason. But once U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan begins and the economy shows signs of improvement, the threat to attack Iran could revive.
It goes to the credit of Iran to have withstood these sanctions and is resisting the American, European and Israeli pressure with determination.
Kourosh Ziabari is an Iranian media correspondent, freelance journalist and interviewer. He is a contributing writer of Finland’s Award-winning Ovi Magazine and the the Foreign Policy Journal. He is a member of Tlaxcala Translators Network for Linguistic Diversity (Spain). He is also a member of World Student Community for Sustainable Development (WSC-SD). Kourosh Ziabari's articles have appeared in a number of Canadian, Belgian, Italian, French and German websites. He can be reached at email@example.com
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