Tag Archive: Middle East


If this had not come from a reliable source, the readers would treat it as a joke of the century. It sounds incredible that an ambassador of a country being ruled by the world’s shrewdest president was fooled; and that too by a Neocon think tank for their fund-raising. According to the Middle East Channel, the Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. hosted a fundraiser at his residence for a neoconservative D.C. think-tank, which solicited donations of $5,000 for invitations to the event. But the think-tank, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), didn’t bother to tell the Pakistani embassy that the event was a fundraiser or that it was sandwiched in the middle of a two-and-a-half day conference on “Countering the Iranian Threat” put on by the group.

“We didn’t know at all that they have done this fund-raising,” a spokesperson for the Pakistani embassy, told the Middle East Channel. “And neither did they share with us that they would be doing this conference. Very frankly, we didn’t know about this conference.”

Though the dinner appeared in the paper and online conference programs, FDD president Cliff May insisted that the two were unrelated: “The dinner was separate from the conference but it coincided with the conference. Why? Because many friends of FDD were in town for the conference,” he wrote in an e-mail to the Middle East Channel. May conceded that his staff may have failed to notify the Pakistani embassy that the group was in the middle of hosting the conference.

At the “Washington Forum, “as the conference was called, fellows and scholars from FDD advocated for escalating measures against the Islamic Republic of Iran, ranging from “ratcheting up” sanctions and pressure to U.S. support for regime change and even military strikes against Iran.  The location of the fundraiser — billed on the program as only “dinner at the residence of one of Washington‘s noteworthy Ambassadors” — was a closely guarded secret on the first full day of the event. FDD’s communications director, Judy Mayka, told the Middle East Channel on Wednesday night before the dinner that even she didn’t know where it would be held.

As the conference’s second full day drew to a close, Middle East Channel reports, May confirmed that the dinner had been at the Pakistani ambassador’s residence and said that between forty and fifty people were at the dinner. But the embassy spokesperson, emphasized that Iran was not an issue during the dinner. May disputed that the event was a fundraiser, telling the Middle East Channel that “friends and supporters” were invited, and that there was no “quid-pro-quo” relationship between a $5,000 donation and an invitation. “I invited FDD donors at or above the $5,000 level to the event,” May wrote in a follow-up interview by e-mail. “Others friends of FDD were invited — at my discretion. Several FDD staff members were invited as well.”

But the online conference schedule, which didn’t name the ambassador in question, left little room for equivocation:

7:00 pm

Dinner at the residence of one

of Washington’s noteworthy Ambassadors

(Closed to Media)

(Minimum $5,000 gift required. Contribute here, or for more information on becoming a donor, please contact [e-mail of FDD staffer removed])

The paper version of the schedule handed out to conference participants only said: “Dinner at the residence of one of Washington’s ambassadors — Will leave from the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. See staff for more details.”

The Pakistani press attache, Nadeem Hotiana, said the dinner “was in honor of (FDD), but the participants were donors.” He added that no donations were collected on the premises.

May described Haqqani as an “old personal friend,” a relationship corroborated by Shuja Nawaz, the director of the Atlantic Council‘s South Asia Center. “I think the ambassador had a personal relationship with this group for quite some time,” Nawaz said, “but I don’t know if this would reflect official policy. It could well be that this is an unofficial action on his part.”

Indeed, while Iran and Pakistan more or less waged a proxy war in Afghanistan in the 1990s — when Iran supported the Northern Alliance until the Pakistani-supported Taliban took power nationally — the countries enjoy good relations. “I would characterize their relations as cordial — not warm at all times, but for the most part cooperative on issues like building a pipeline through Pakistan,” said Alireza Nader of the RAND Corporation.

Nawaz of the Atlantic council said the issues between the countries revolve around Jundullah, a Baluchi rebel group on the border that says it fights for Iran’s Sunni minority that Iran alleges seeks refuge in Pakistan, and Iran’s collaboration with Pakistan’s archrival India to build a road from Afghanistan to a port town in Iran that bypasses Pakistan.

“But they’ve always maintained good relations on the surface,” said Columbia University professor and Iran expert Gary Sick. “They try to maintain good, business like relations. Each side will allow a certain amount of trouble from the other because they know they need each other.”

Which makes it curious that a group hosting a conference very much focused on isolating Iran and pushing escalating measures against the Islamic Republic would take refuge in an embassy of a country — Pakistan — so opposed to such policies. Perhaps that’s why both May and the embassy spokesperson, tried to explain away the events. May said the funding links on the conference program — listed under the dinner, with a minimum to attend — was merely a “reminder” for donors to give more, “routine among think tanks.”

For his part, the spokesperson chalked up the mix-up to chance: “We Pakistanis and we Muslims are very courteous people,” he said, explaining why so few questions were asked. “It was just a coincidence that this happened like this because the Ambassador has his personal friends.”

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Indo-Iran relations are warming up again. These cooled off when India, in order to win American favors, did not stand by Iran and abstained from voting in the UN General Assembly on a Canada-sponsored resolution against its human right violations. This was seen as Indian retaliation for Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei equating Kashmir with Afghanistan and Gaza in Palestine. Tehran and New Delhi are due to start a new round of negotiations on the latter’s investment in major Iranian oil and gas projects. According to Fars News Agency has reported that an Indian delegation is scheduled to visit Iran next week to discuss investments in Iran’s giant South Pars Gas Field and supply of certain expensive oil equipment, like drilling platforms and towers, in meetings with Iranian officials.

Also, the Iranian and Indian officials are slated to talk about New Delhi’s return to the peace pipeline project currently under construction on both the Iranian Pakistani territories. India has stayed out of the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline (also known as the Peace Pipeline) project because of its failure to strike a deal on transition fees with Pakistan. The 2700-kilometer long pipeline was to supply gas for Pakistan and India which are suffering a lack of energy sources, but India later evaded talks. Last year Iran and Pakistan declared they would finalize the agreement bilaterally if India continued to be absent in meetings. According to the project proposal, the pipeline will begin from Iran’s Assalouyeh Energy Zone in the south and stretch over 1,100 km through Iran. In Pakistan, it will pass through Baluchistan and Sindh but officials say the route may be changed if China agrees to the project.

It is expected to cost $7.4 billion. But the intangible costs are much more than that. Kashmir Watch has narrated how Iran backstabbed Pakistan when it abstained from voting asking for imposing sanctions on India for human rights violation in Kashmir thus saving India at the cost of Kashmiris. The story goes like this:

On a winter morning, with the Elbruz Mountains overlooking Tehran airport still under snow, braving cold winds, a special Indian military plane touched down. On board was an ailing Dinesh Singh, then External Affairs Minister, along with three others. Barely able to walk, Singh had been dragged out of a hospital bed to deliver an urgent letter from Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao to Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Incidentally, this was the last such tour in the 50-year diplomatic career of Singh.

Having mortgaged its gold reserves two years ago, India was on the economic brink and Russia still licking its wounds after the break-up of the Soviet Union. The Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC), supported by influential Western nations, was pushing a resolution at the UN Commission Human Rights (UNCHR), later rechristened as Human Rights Council, to condemn India for human right violations in Kashmir. The resolution, with UNCHR approval, was to be referred to the UN Security Council for initiating economic sanctions and other punitive measures against India. As in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in the OIC, too, decisions are by consensus.  Once there is no consensus in the OIC, the resolution was bound to fall through.

The Iranians had no clue to the Indian Minister’s mission. Casting aside protocol, Iranian Foreign Minister Dr. Ali Akbar Velayati was at the airport when Singh alighted. Velayati asked what on earth could be of such momentous importance for Singh to risk a perilous journey in his precarious condition. In reply, Dinesh Singh smilingly handed over a demarche.

In the course of the day, he went through his “Kashmir brief” diligently in meetings with his Iranian interlocutors, namely, Velayati, President Rafsanjani and Iranian Majlis Speaker Nateq-Nouri. By evening, Singh returned to his hospital bed in Delhi, but with an assurance from President Rafsanjani to Prime Minister Rao “that Iran will do all it can do to ensure that no harm comes to India.”

What Iran gained by obliging India is an abiding mystery? Only after 72 anxious hours did Delhi learn that Iran had killed the OIC move to table the resolution. This marked a new chapter in India-Iran relations with wider consequences. Iran distanced itself from Pakistan in the matter of Afghanistan; and, India joined hands with Iran to promote the Northern Alliance, which was inimical to Pakistani interests.  Pakistan was shocked by what it termed as “backstabbing”.

The Indian delegation to the UNCHR led by Leader of the Opposition Atal Behari Vajpayee comprised minister of state for external affairs Salman Khurshid and Farooq Abdullah. Basking in this diplomatic victory, Vajpayee and Abdullah were unaware that, three days ago, Dinesh Singh had laid the ground for it in Tehran; and Rao never tried to steal the credit from Vajpayee and Abdullah.

Much later, it came to be known that when the Pakistani ambassador sought to move the OIC resolution, his Iranian counterpart in Geneva, under orders from Teheran, backed out. He argued that as a close friend of both India and Pakistan, Iran was ready to sort out their problems and there was no need to raise these in an international forum.  That was the last time Pakistan tried to get a resolution on the Kashmir issue tabled in a UN forum.

Now, the wheel has come full circle. Iranian officials say their gesture was not reciprocated, and accuse India of “backstabbing” by voting against Iran at the IAEA. The vote had already sealed the fate of the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline. Tehran which had earlier committed to provide gas below 3 dollars per British Thermal Unit (BTU) now wants a commercial price of 9 dollars.

These officials link India’s growing proximity to US, aspirations for global economic and political power, early conclusion of civilian nuclear agreements with Western powers leading it to distance itself from Tehran. The pipeline was to begin gas supply in 2012. The 7.5-billion-dollar, 2,700-kilometre pipeline has been under discussion for almost two decades. The pipeline is to begin from Iran’s Assalouyeh energy zone in the south and run over 1,100 kms through Iran. In Pakistan it is to pass through Balochistan and Sindh before linking up Rajasthan and Gujarat.

Iran was angered when India abstained on the Canada-sponsored resolution, and subsequently summoned Iran’s Charge De Affairs Reza Alaei and issued a demarche for Khamenei impinging on the country’s territorial integrity. The Iranian leader’s appeal to the world’s Muslim elite to back the “struggle” in Jammu and  Kashmir, equating it with the “nations” of Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan had New Delhi bristling. In its official reaction, the Ministry of External Affairs said: “Our decision on the vote was made after due deliberation.”

India disapproved of Khamenei’s message to Hajj pilgrims that “today the major duties of the elite of the Islamic Ummah are to provide help  to the Palestinian nation and the besieged people of Gaza, to sympathize and provide assistance to the nations of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Kashmir, to engage in struggle and resistance against the aggressions of the United States and the Zionist regime.”

Since July this year, on three occasions Iran has spoken of support to the “struggle” in Kashmir and bracketed the situation in the state with that in Gaza and Afghanistan, sources said. “We have conveyed to the Iranian authorities our deep disappointment and regret that they have chosen to disregard our sensitivities and question our territorial sovereignty”.

Though the government has often denied that deterioration of relations was due to its hobnobbing with the US and Israel,  analysts believe the chill arises from a series of developments, including India opting out of the tri-nation gas pipeline and President Obama seeking India’s support against Iran’s nuclear armament. In 2008, Tehran had protested at India deploying for the first time ever a warship in the Persian Gulf region, which operated in coordination with the western navies under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

More recently, on September 18, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast had slammed the killing of 15 Muslim protesters in Kashmir who were outraged by the threat to defile the Holy Qur’an in the US. He had said that countering such reactions could be interpreted as supporting acts of sacrilege. These comments evoked a strong diplomatic protest from New Delhi as it had not only banned the Iranian TV channel showing provocative and “unverified” visuals but also summoned Iranian envoy to lodge a protest.  India pointed out that law and order in Jammu and Kashmir was an internal matter and Iran had no right to interfere or comment on these issues.

 

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TAPI gas pipeline project already in the pipeline….

Saudi Arabia is rightfully a citadel of conservative and fundamentalist Islam. It has remained under the yoke of a form of the government, a system of monarchy not really sanctioned in Islam. So strong was the hold of autocracy and its own brand of religion that the word “nation” was a taboo, always treated like a four-lettered word. Equally sinful was the desire to identify oneself with a nation. However, it is now waking up to the societal need of every social animal i.e. nationalism or a national identity. The religion in the kingdom is normally used, and clergy pampered, to provide fabricated and doctored justifications for perpetuation of hereditary kingship, even in the 21st century.

Pampering of the clergy is manifest in many shapes, most notably in their powers of policing in herding and forcing people to mosques at prayer times. Incidentally, the most appealing message of the religion of Islam for people of those times 1400 plus years ago was not the five-times prayers but elimination of two worst instruments of human exploitation namely, clergy and the autocracy. These two mutually supporting instruments are being perpetuated in Saudi Arabia in the name of Islam. The kingdom was a province of the Ottoman Empire and was plucked out to serve imperial designs of Britain as aptly explained in the memoirs of “Lawrence of Arabia”.

It, however, seems that a change is in the air which can easily be felt by those visiting the kingdom. The feelings for religion are making space for feeling for the nation-hood. Foreign Policy Magazine has reported a rare spectacle this September when thousands of young men spilled onto gridlocked arteries from Riyadh to Khobar to commemorate National Day. Similar displays of patriotic fervor pass without notice in many countries around the world. But in a kingdom renowned for the austerity of its conservative religious movement, even a simple festival can be symptomatic of dramatic changes in the structure of society.

For decades, any celebration of the 1932 unification of the kingdom was widely interpreted as an affront to Islam. Powerful Saudi clerics conspired to treat tributary holidays, outside the two religious festivals of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, as heresy. For this same conservative clergy to ignore elaborate, state-sponsored celebrations and National Day-themed Theater (in a country that does not allow cinemas) suggests that the balance of power between the House of al-Sa’ud and the House of Ibn Wahhab may be tipping in favor of the monarchy.

The current socio-political system in Saudi Arabia dates to the establishment of the kingdom by Abdul Aziz al-Sa’ud (Ibn Sa’ud). The expansion of al-Sa’ud’s power base beyond the central portion of the kingdom in Najd depended heavily on a group of desert warriors known as the Ikhwan, who had embraced the call to arms of al-Sa’ud’s then-ally and puritanical religious revivalist Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. The same 1744 pact governing this alliance between religious and temporal power persists to this day through the clerical legitimization of the rule of the House of al-Sa’ud, and the reciprocal guarantee of the Islamic character of the state.

Under this arrangement, the descendants of al-Wahhab — the al-Shaikh family — exercise ultimate control over the judiciary, education and religious hierarchy through key positions including that of Justice Minister and Grand Mufti. Dynastic succession in the 5,000-man strong royal family is similarly restricted to the direct descendants of Ibn Sa’ud, who dominate political life in the country to an extent that is virtually unparalleled in the contemporary world.

The alliance provides the royal family with leverage to perfect the practice of co-option through intermarriage, the allocation of oil wealth and appointments to positions of power. As a result, the kingdom’s senior Wahhabi clergy, including the top cleric and highest religious authority, have been subordinated to the political order and are expected to ratify and justify regime policies.

The impact of this arrangement on the legitimacy of the official religious establishment has fluctuated over time, but state-appointed clerics continue to enjoy tremendous power in schools, universities, mosques and state-controlled radio and television.

This is perhaps doubly true of the kingdom’s “unofficial” clerics and religious figures aligned with the fragmented Islamic awakening movement (sahwa). Members of this disparate group — made up of both moderates close to the reformist lobby and hardliners who provide moral succor to violent dissidents — share the social conservatism of their official counterparts, but derive their influence from their popular following and their willingness to openly challenge the regime. The most prominent among them rose to power in the 1990’s by channeling popular anger toward official clerics who had legitimized the presence of American troops on Saudi soil.

Many of these same independent and politically motivated conservative clerics today oppose King Abdullah‘s education and justice reform agenda, issuing hundreds of internet fatwas to derail modernization efforts. A royal response issued in August 2010, by way of decree, limited the authority to issue religious edicts to approved members of a 20-cleric Senior Scholars Authority and an affiliated committee.

The seemingly long-delayed decision to insulate the citizenry — and the royal agenda — from the influence of more extreme elements within the independent clergy, can actually be traced back to the early part of this decade. Following al Qaeda‘s attacks on the kingdom in 2003 and 2004, the king encouraged nationalist sentiment by promoting patriotism (watania) as a stand-alone subject in the academic curriculum.

With the exception of a joint statement issued by 156 scholars expressing outrage at the perceived replacement of religious based loyalty with Saudi nationalism, the clerical establishment remained surprisingly quiet. Their acquiescence paved the way for King Abdullah to sanction National Day as an official holiday in one of the first decrees he issued upon coming to power in 2005. In every year since, preparations have been more elaborate, and celebrations more colorful, than the year before. Please also click: forbidden luxury