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Pakistan: Conflict Creates Strains With Iran (Part 3)

  • Charles Recknagel

Pakistan faces the prospect of new violence between its majority Sunni and minority Shiite populations as the Shiia next week (6 April) hold one of their most important annual religious observances. In the third and final part of a three-part series on sectarian violence in Pakistan, RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at strains the conflict creates in relations between Pakistan and Iran.

Lahore, Pakistan; 28 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Pakistan and Iran both say they want to maintain good neighborly ties. But there are two issues which regularly strain their efforts to do so.

The first is Afghanistan, where Islamabad supports the ruling Taliban militia. Tehran, along with Russia and several Central Asian states, backs the opposition Northern Alliance.

The second is sectarian violence in Pakistan, which regularly sees clashes between extremist Sunni and Shiite Islamic militants. The sectarian violence has killed more than 300 people in recent years and has occasionally spilled over into attacks by radical Sunni gunmen on Iranian citizens in Pakistan.

Both Tehran and Islamabad are still dealing with one of the most dramatic killings of Iranians in Pakistan, the 1990 shooting of Ardeshir Sadegh Ganji, director-general of an Iranian cultural center in Lahore. That murder, followed by the gunning down of six Iranian cadets, created diplomatic tensions that, more than 10 years later, remain high.

After Ganji's shooting, most of the suspects fled to Afghanistan, where they took refuge with the ruling Taliban militia. Ever since, Iran has accused Islamabad of using the militia as a cover for not trying the killers. But Pakistan, which has made public appeals to the Taliban to extradite the suspects, says its efforts have been rebuffed, leaving it powerless to do more.

The Ganji case returned violently to the headlines last month when Pakistan executed one of the killers who was unable to get to Afghanistan -- Sunni extremist Haq Nawaz. His hanging sparked several weeks of new sectarian violence in northwestern Pakistan and around Lahore, in which some 45 people died.

Sunni radicals in Pakistan have targeted Iranians because they say Tehran plays a direct role in the conflict. The Sunni extremist SSP accuses Tehran of arming and financing its arch-rival, the extremist Shiite TJP. The Shiite group, along with Tehran, rejects the charge and, in turn, accuses Saudi Arabia of bankrolling the SSP. That charge is denied by Riyadh.

For its part, the Iranian leadership regards both Sunni extremists in Pakistan and Islamabad's support for the Taliban as part of a dangerous resurgence of militant Sunni Islam on its borders. That has made Iran skeptical of Pakistan's attempts to ease the tensions by pursuing Ganji's killers -- even when Pakistan recently sent Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider to Kabul to ask the Taliban to extradite them.

Rifaat Hussein, a foreign policy specialist at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, says Haider's trip last month included a personal appeal to Taliban Supreme Leader Mullah Omar to send back the militants.

"[Pakistan officials] recently have made two or three appeals, including a personal appeal which was made by Mr. Moinuddin Haider, the interior minister, during a recent visit to the Taliban, asking for their extradition to Pakistan. And the Taliban have said they don't know where these people are and that therefore they are unable to help Pakistan."

Rifaat Hussein continues:

"And this has not gone down well with Islamabad and we have conveyed this to Iran, the difficulty of trying to catch these culprits."

Hussein says some of the suspects in Ganji's killing are members of the radical Sunni group Lashkar-e-Taiba, or Army of the Pure. Some 5,000 of the group's militants fight alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan against the Northern Alliance.

The deadlock over extraditing Ganji's suspected killers comes as Pakistan's military ruler General Pervez Musharraf has sought to improve overall relations with Iran.

Shortly after taking power in an October 1999 coup d'etat, Musharraf made Tehran the destination of his first trip abroad as Pakistan's leader. Musharraf met with both President Mohammad Khatami and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

During the visit, Musharraf called for renewed regional efforts for peace in Afghanistan, where he has said he favors seeing the Taliban form a government that includes all the country's warring factions. He also discussed economic cooperation between Islamabad and Tehran, including possible construction of an Iran-to-India gas pipeline through Pakistan.

Since Musharraf's trip, Afghanistan's opposing factions have held meetings in Saudi Arabia with representatives of Pakistan, Iran, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and the UN. But, as with previous talks, there were no results. And Pakistan has made no follow-up initiatives.

Western diplomats in Islamabad say Musharraf has now abandoned plans to take an active role in shaping an Afghan peace and has returned to Pakistan's policy of championing the Taliban. The diplomats say that frees him to concentrate on his priority, which is Pakistan's hard-hit economy. It also reduces the risk of angering Pakistan's religious right, which actively supports the Taliban and whose support the government wants in an anti-corruption drive.

Analyst Hussein says Islamabad has backed away from pressing the Taliban to form a more representative government because the militia refuses any suggestions to do so.

"Pakistan has not abandoned the idea of having some kind of united front government in Kabul but then this desire has to be squared against (that is, reconciled with) the reality of the Taliban controlling 95 percent of Afghan territory. The Taliban have said: 'why should we give [the opposition] something on a diplomatic plate that they have lost on the battlefield?'"

As Pakistani-Iranian relations continue to be strained by Afghanistan and by sectarian violence in Pakistan, there is little likelihood that prospects for greater economic cooperation will change the picture soon.

The two countries would like to see a pipeline built to connect Iran's gas fields with Indian markets through Pakistan. But the conflict between Islamabad and New Delhi over Kashmir makes investors wary.

Hussein says that for now the projected gas pipeline remains only an idea:

"There is a feasibility study -- there is a joint India-Pakistan-Iran ministerial committee and commission which looks at these issues. So these ideas are there and the thinking is there, the blueprints are there. But I think that unless and until the relationship between Pakistan and India is stabilized, the Iranians would be very reluctant to go ahead."

Hussein estimates it would cost some $10 billion to $15 billion to build a pipeline to bring Iranian gas across Pakistan to India's northern markets. At the same time, the pipeline would help Islamabad meet its own growing energy needs. Reserves in Pakistan's gas fields are reported to be running out and the country could face shortfalls in production by 2010.

(This concludes the three-part series on sectarian violence in Pakistan.)