Just last year the leading national flavour was anti-Americanism… and the heroic assertion of national sovereignty. After the Raymond Davis affair, the stealth assault on Bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad and the killing of our soldiers in the Salala incident everyone who mattered was supping, and supping high, at the table of these twin flavours.
To recall a thrilling circumstance, in the forefront of this mass national mood stood the intrepid ISI-tutored heroes of everyone’s favourite organisation, the Defence of Pakistan Council.
Against this backdrop of aroused national consciousness, is it not a little strange that when a real opportunity for asserting national resolve comes in the form of the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, there is deathly silence across the frontiers of national patriotism?
Right-wing holy fathers most vociferously expressive of that anti-American mood are quiet, not a word on this subject on their sacred lips; the warriors of the Defence of Pakistan Council are quiet; the usual patriotic brigade is quiet. It is as if, as the Urdu expression goes, they have all smelt a snake.
Is it for fear of arousing the ire of the Great Satan, the US? But then these same elements have little qualms about glorifying the Taliban and damning the Great Satan in Afghanistan and Fata. So this can’t be the true explanation.
What is it then? Is it because the gas pipeline has to do with Shiite Iran, a connection impossible to swallow for these champions of righteousness?
If this is so, and I suspect it is, let us bewail (one more time) our misfortune. We have become adept at killing in the name of religion and its deadly variant, sectarianism. As if this wasn’t enough, must we now view questions related to national well-being through the prism of American and Saudi displeasure?
America has its fixations about Iran. The Saudis have their own ideological problems with Iran. That is their business. We are friends with both the US and Saudi Arabia. May these friendships grow. But we are also friends with Iran and how we deal with Iran is our business. Just as Europe needs gas from Russia, we need gas from Iran. This pipeline is in our national interest and all Pakistanis, regardless of political affiliations, should own it.
America’s Iran sanctions are nuclear-related. What has Pakistani procurement of Iranian gas got to do with Iran developing or not developing nuclear-weapons capability? If the US, bending logic to its own ends, makes eyes at Pakistan or threatens it with sanctions then Pakistan – government and people – must stand up for what is right.
No loud rhetoric – we can do without that – but we should be firm and when American pressure increases, as it is bound to, we must argue our point patiently. And if our friends don’t get it, let us murmur our apologies.
We shouldn’t invite American sanctions but, at the same time, we shouldn’t cave in to threats. If the US held a monopoly on wisdom it would be a different matter. But as we regrettably know, a history of folly stretching from Vietnam to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the blind support to Israel not tempered by other circumstances, testifies to the sad fact that it does not.
Did the US approve of our quest for nuclear weapons? Of course it did not. Pakistan was not just threatened by sanctions but hit with them, earning it the sobriquet of being the most-sanctioned country in the world. But we stuck to that road because there was broad national agreement that national security demanded no less. Failures in so much else, in this journey we succeeded.
The gas pipeline represents another journey in which we should succeed. Whatever American or Saudi objections, we need it, not only gas from Iran but gas from wherever available on favourable terms, Qatar included.
Talking of Qatar, the Saudis were never in love with Al-Jazeera, nor were the Americans whose ideas of democracy sensibly keep shifting wherever their interests so demand. But the Amir of Qatar, a man with a mind of his own, persisted with the idea. With the result that the Saudis have to live with it and the Americans too, despite an attempt to bomb the Al-Jazeera office in Kabul at the start of the present Afghan war.
And let’s not forget the Americans have a large military presence in Qatar…which only tells us that foreign policy should not be a zero-sum game. Gas from Iran, friendship with China, close ties with Saudi Arabia, easing of tensions with India, retaining a strong relationship with the US, all these should exist at the same time, different strands in the fabric of a dynamic foreign policy.
Was there a Pakistani ruler more Sunni, nay more of an out-and-out Salafist, than General Ziaul Haq, the prime initiator of so many of our present troubles, the godfather, if one has to be chosen, of our sectarian politics? Yet while he sought material and spiritual support from Saudi Arabia he forged, at the same time, a strong relationship with Iran. There were not too many heads of state at his funeral but the Iranian president was one of them.
Of course there is one valid objection: why this deal so late in the day? It should have been concluded earlier instead of at the fag end of the PPP’s reign of unforgettable disaster. But then apart from any wily calculations that may be there, so many things in our history should have been done earlier, at the right time, instead of waiting for the waters to rise to our heads. So too with this pipeline, so too with our energy crisis, we are getting serious about these needs when the danger lights are already flashing red.
Forget about other things. The roads leading outside not any remote village but Islamabad itself take forever to build. The building, the expansion, the rebuilding of the Kashmir Highway from Islamabad to Peshawar Road has been going on for the last 30 years. The road from Islamabad to Rewat took about 20 years (if imperfect memory serves, slightly more). So let us not despair. A transnational gas pipeline is slightly more complicated to put together.
Our American friends who can be counted upon to lose all balance when it comes to Iran will of course work themselves up into a lather of excitement about this deal. And they will keep dangling various fictitious carrots. Let us keep a straight face and examine these carrots carefully and let our concerned officials grip Ambassador Olson’s hand firmer than ever. And for further discussions if there must be any, let us invite the State Department spokesperson, Victoria Nuland…a good-looker if there is one.
There is also a second objection, more valid than the first. It is unfortunate that President Zardari, tainted by so much, should have his name associated with this pipeline, which is enough to discourage the most excitable optimists. But his term is to finish later this year, unless the political class bungles and we are saddled with him for a longer period…a disaster more striking than any American sanctions that may come our way.
So if the gods are not to laugh more at our expense and he goes quietly into the night, then the next government can take credit for this venture. Bhutto started the bomb but any number of people takes credit for it…why not the same with this pipeline?
In any event, this is a test of national sovereignty more litmus and more real than the fake storms we went through last year. And if only our friends in the Defence of Pakistan Council and other warriors who take it as their God-appointed duty to stand guard over the watchtowers of national patriotism could bring themselves to say a good word about the gas deal with Shiite Iran, maybe this has a beneficial effect on other fronts in our expanding sectarian wars.