KARACHI – As the crisis around Iran over its alleged nuclear ambitions assumes an ugly shape, Pakistan finds itself once again under enormous political pressure because of aggressive United States policy toward a Muslim country in its immediate neighborhood.
Already, the Pakistan government is under fire from powerful Islamist groups and political parties for supporting the U.S.-led "war on terror" in Afghanistan, especially in the border areas of Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP).
And now the U.S. is pressing both Pakistan and India to forgo the economically advantageous Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project and think of other ways of meeting their energy requirements.
Already the U.S. has told the Pakistan government that it can expect funding and other assistance if the alternate Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan oil pipeline project is pursued and the Iran project abandoned.
India is being persuaded by Washington to give up the Iran gas deal, in return for cooperation on civilian nuclear technology. Indian participation in the project would make the pipeline more attractive for Pakistan in terms of an annual $700 million in royalties.
On Saturday, Iranian oil minister Kazem Vaziri announced at the International Energy Forum at Doha, Qatar, that Iran, India, and Pakistan were close to concluding the $7 billion gas pipeline deal.
Subsequently, both Pakistan’s oil minister Amanullah Khan Jadoon and his Indian counterpart Murli Deora confirmed the plan, although observers say much can happen in Iran between now and the actual signing of the tripartite agreement in June.
Said Karachi University professor and international affairs expert Jafar Ahmad: "Superficially, it looks as if the U.S. is not capable of going to war with Iran. Considering it’s unfinished business in Iraq and Afghanistan, the idea of adding an even bigger country to the list of targets would not make sense."
"But on the other hand, the American administration has piled up strong rhetoric and would seem to be preparing for military action. Some say that the logic of the Iraq war would demand that the Americans take strong military action against Iran also," Ahmad told IPS in an interview.
"Iran is unlikely to prove a soft target like Afghanistan and Iraq and retaliation is certain," Ahmad said. "Pakistan being a neighbor, is vitally concerned and this is a reason why American pressure is particularly considerable over Pakistan. No military action in Iran can be taken without some sort of understanding and support from Pakistan."
"What Iran can do is considerable. It can close the Straits of Hormuz, the narrow neck through which all oil trade to eastern Asia has to pass can be closed by sinking a few medium-sized cargo ships. The kind of new equipment that Iran has recently demonstrated makes U.S. naval armadas in the Persian Gulf vulnerable."
Then, there is the question of oil. "Should Iran stop exporting oil for an extended period of some months, it can cause a tremendous upheaval in the oil market. The oil prices will go through the roof. World economic activity would be severely affected," Ahmad said.
"What is truly troubling is that Iran is in a position to hit Israel directly just as Israel is loudly thinking of making a unilateral attack on Iran," said the well-known academic.
A groundswell of opinion is now building up against any support by Pakistan for military action against Iran that is not confined to Islamist groups alone but also extends to academics, intellectuals, and well-known secular politicians.
Said prominent politician and leader of the National Workers Party, B.M. Kutty: "Pakistan and Iran are neighbors, and we had better not collude with the Americans against that country. No doubt, there is great pressure on Pakistan to stay aligned with the Americans. But that is not something that should be taken for granted."
Kutty said that while Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf was under pressure from Washington, it was still possible to put up resistance. "Pakistan ought to have been able to line up with those who are against this likely war such as China and Russia. Pakistan’s national interests do not demand any break with Iran," he said.
As the Afghanistan experience has shown, by supporting Washington’s military adventures, Pakistan risks exacerbating fault lines that exist between its many ethnic groups, besides angering the religious establishment.
"Pakistan runs the risk of intensifying its sectarian divide lining up with the Americans would jeopardize social peace since large swathes of nationalist opinion in Balochistan, Sindh, and NWFP do not favor any anti-Iranian stance," Kutty said. "Pakistan should counsel caution with its supposed ally America. Any military action in Iran by America or by Israel would cause a tremendous impact on much of southern Asia and also Central Asia what forces would be unleashed cannot be foreseen."
Said Anis Haroon, general secretary of the Pakistan chapter of the India-Pakistan Peoples Forum for Peace and Democracy: "Pakistan has no business to support possible American action against Iran. The official line taken is correct. But it is weak. It should be stronger in favor of peace and more pro-Iran."
"It is time that Pakistan made it clear that we are not prepared to be pushed around. There is no case for American military action against Iran," she said. "The whole brouhaha of war has been created on the basis of what Americans think Iran wants to do. Whether Iran makes a bomb or not, would depend largely on international situation and has to be seen against the fact of Israel possessing a large number of nuclear weapons. No Middle East power, which is not part of the American alignment, can be complacent about that fact."
"For the longer term," Haroon said, "the Israeli desire to remain the sole nuclear power in the region is purely self-serving and ill-intentioned. Others cannot go on tolerating it, least of all Iran."
"The Americans should do a proper cost-benefit analysis on maintaining peace with Iran or going to war what outweighs the other is for the Americans to decide. We can only hope and demand that America opts for peace in the end," said Haroon.
Said former law minister Syed Iqbal Haider: "The Americans have virtually killed the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty [NPT] by not implementing their part to disarm in good faith, while others are expected to abjure making nuclear weapons."
"Pakistan cannot remain unaffected, should aggression be committed against Iran," said Haider. "It will have direct political, social, and psychological impact on Pakistan. In an important way it is directly linked with Pakistan’s own social and political peace."
"Pakistanis have always counted Iranians as their friends and are likely to continue to do so in future where Iran is concerned, Pakistan has to keep away from the Americans," Haider said. "For once, Pakistan should take a strong independent line."