Friday, 19 May 2006

Gentle Support for Iran

SHAUKAT Aziz is prime minister of the world's 'other' rogue nuclear state, Pakistan. In comparison to its rhetoric about the Iranian uranium enrichment programme, however, the US has expressed only reserved concern over a similar Pakistani programme. 

Aziz seems well aware of the significance of this qualitative difference. Pakistan is, after all, working with the US to root out Islamic terrorists on its northeastern border with Afghanistan.

"We are against any country producing nuclear weapons, " Aziz said in an interview with the Athens News at the Grande Bretagne hotel in Athens.

Although Aziz speaks with an aloofness about Iran's programme, he echoes some of the popular Muslim sentiment heard across Asia. "Iran has the right to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes under IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] safeguards, monitoring and guidelines," he said.

But Aziz is also careful to align Pakistan with the European Union position. He cautions against military action. "We are against the use of force - that will merely complicate matters in an already complex part of the world - and we encourage dialogue, " he said.

Aziz said he had met with Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at two international meetings. "We sat on the sidelines and chatted as you and I are chatting now, and I have a fairly good idea of where they're coming from," he said.

A defiant tone rose to the surface when we discussed the economic dimension of nuclear power. Aziz, a former investment banker, has presided over a turnaround in Pakistan's economy, increasing the country's foreign currency reserves and its bond values. Foreign direct investment reached $3 billion last year, he said. He sees Pakistan as the ideal export route for Central Asian oil and gas to China, and has thrown support behind a new freight harbour at Gwadar. "Our economy is growing very rapidly - last year by 8.4 percent. The energy needs are rising exponentially. We are exploring all the alternatives, including nuclear power. We have acquired civilian reactors and we will do more. So what Pakistan is saying is that it should be a level playing field."

What terrorism?

Aziz, Pakistan's 23rd prime minister, is the first ever to visit Athens officially.

Suspicion that Pakistan planned to recognise Turkey's self-styled republic in northern Cyprus kept Greece at a distance for years. But in the autumn of 2001, weeks after the US-aided ousting of the Taliban in Afghanistan, then-foreign minister George Papandreou helped to break the ice between Greece and Pakistan with a visit to Islamabad.

Pakistan and India were then tense over Kashmir. The arrival of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism in the West with 9/11 had caused India to renew its accusations that Pakistan was allowing terrorists to destabilise Indian-occupied Jammu and Kashmir to its south, the way it had nursed the Taliban to its north.

Papandreou offered President Pervez Musharraff his services as a mediator. Fresh from a warming of Greek-Turkish relations, he publicly preached that the chief virtue of rapprochement was "avoiding superpower solutions" with their inherent heavy-handedness. This was not just a reference to the Afghan invasion, but also to Bill Clinton's bombing of Yugoslavia in early 1999.

Aziz's trip was part commercial. He and Karamanlis signed an agreement to promote tourism and formed a bilateral committee of economy ministers. It was also part security-oriented with discussions on terrorism, although neither would reveal details of those talks.

Aziz rejected any notion of Pakistani fundamentalist terrorists in Greece. "We have not had any evidence of that sort at all, " he said. But there is plenty of evidence that some Pakistanis are involved in organised crime. Four Pakistanis were deported in June 2003 for smuggling illegal immigrants into Greece. The Greek police reports for 2004 and 2005 make special mention of the ruthlessness of the Pakistani, Albanian, Iraqi and Chinese organised crime rings, who are said to torture and mutilate victims. Pakistanis are among those most involved in immigrant trafficking, the 2005 report said. 

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