- The Washington Times - Friday, February 4, 2005

A diplomatic spat in Pakistan’s southwestern province of Baluchistan may lead to a bitter confrontation between two Islamic nations, Pakistan and Iran, and adversely affect U.S. efforts to fight the al Qaeda terror network in neighboring Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s possession of nuclear weapons and Iran’s nuclear ambitions makes the situation even more precarious. Last week, Baluchistan’s chief minister, Jam Mohammed Yusuf, blamed Iran for fomenting trouble in his province. But on the same day officials in the federal capital, Islamabad, denied any Iranian involvement in Baluchistan.

“Outside forces … maybe Iran, are involved,” Mr. Yusuf told Pakistan’s private ARY Television when asked about foreign involvement in Baluchistan. This was the first time a senior Pakistani official had directly blamed Iran for stirring trouble inside Pakistan. In the past, India usually has been blamed for such troubles.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf last month also blamed “outside forces” for exploiting the situation in Baluchistan, after three days of fighting between security forces and rebels killed at least four soldiers.

“There are possibilities. Without proof, we cannot accuse anyone. But yes, we know funds and weapons come from outside and activity against Pakistan is encouraged,” he told the private network Geo TV.

Without naming them, Gen. Musharraf said the same powers were opposed to the construction of the Gwadar port in Baluchistan, which is being built with Chinese help to turn it into a hub of trade connecting Pakistan to Afghanistan and other Central Asian nations.

Privately, Pakistani officials complain that Iran is opposed to the construction of the port because Iranians want their ports to be used for this potentially lucrative trade route.

Baluchistan is Pakistan’s largest province, inhabited by Pashtun and Baluchi tribesmen who have strong ethnic and religious ties to people in Afghanistan. Many Taliban and al Qaeda suspects fled to Baluchistan when U.S. forces defeated the hard-line Taliban regime in Afghanistan in December 2001. Baluchistan also borders the Afghan province of Kandahar, where the Taliban movement was born and where religious groups still have a considerable influence.

“Instability in Baluchistan will definitely benefit the Taliban and al Qaeda movements,” said Rashid Khalid, who teaches strategic studies at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad. Mr. Khalid contends that if the Pakistani military loses its grip on Baluchistan, there will be no way to check religious militants who have strong pockets inside the province.

“It will weaken Islamabad’s control, allowing Taliban and al Qaeda suspects to move freely across this large province. They can simply conduct raids in Afghanistan and flee to Baluchistan to hide among local tribes,” he said.

Mr. Khalid said one way to stop this from happening would be direct U.S. intervention, but with its forces stretched thin in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States may not want to undertake another major responsibility in the region.

Baluchistan also is strategically important because of its long coastline, which offers the closest warm-water ports to landlocked Central Asian states of the former Soviet Union, which are rich in natural resources.

In his ARY Television interview, Mr. Yusuf indicated that Baluchistan’s strategic importance, particularly in the war against al Qaeda, interested “outside powers” in the province.

A senior military official in Islamabad, who did not want to be identified, said Iran, which increasingly is worried about being squeezed by U.S. forces based in Iraq and Afghanistan, “sees Baluchistan as a place where it can fight back [against] U.S. influence in the region and hope to create some problems for Washington.”

But it is not just Iran’s desire to resist U.S. influence in the region that appears to have encouraged its interest in Baluchistan. A rapid deterioration in relations with Pakistan also is a factor.

The apparent change in Tehran’s attitude is particularly disturbing for Pakistan, which has a long history of troubles on its eastern border with India and had always viewed its western border with Iran as secure.

Despite Islamabad’s contention that it still has “close friendly ties with the brother Islamic country,” relations with Iran have deteriorated gradually since the mid-1990s. The first signs of cracks in Pakistan’s friendship with Iran appeared in 1994, when Pakistan supported the religious Taliban movement in Afghanistan.

Ironically, Pakistan’s decision to dump the Taliban after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States worsened relations with Iran because Islamabad joined the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism.

Iran sees this coalition as a threat to its national and regional interests. Though happy about the Taliban’s removal, Iran blames Pakistan for bringing American troops to its door.

Pakistan had very good relations with the secular regime of the Shah of Iran, but the friendship began to decline soon after the clergy assumed power in Tehran.

The clergy established the Islamic republic and tried to export the Iranian revolution to other Muslim countries. This threatened Iran’s Arab neighbors, run by autocratic rulers with close ties to the United States, dubbed “the great Satan” by Iran’s revolutionary leader, the late Ayatollah Khomeini.

When Arab governments closed ranks, preventing Iran from exporting its revolution, Tehran turned its focus to non-Arab Muslim neighbors, such as Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Iran helped create Shi’ite resistance groups in Afghanistan to fight the Soviet occupation and retained its links to those groups even after the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1989.

Iran’s links to Afghan Shi’ites and Dari-speaking resistance groups further increased when the vehemently anti-Shi’ite Taliban movement appeared in Afghanistan and gradually assumed power.

Iran tried to court both majority Sunni and minority Shi’ite religious groups. This led Arab states such as Saudi Arabia to undertake a concerted effort to prevent Iran from spreading its influence among the Sunnis. The Saudis funded Sunni groups and religious schools, or madrassas, which later provided thousands of volunteers to the Taliban. Some of these groups also developed links to al Qaeda when Osama bin Laden moved to Afghanistan in 1995.

The Taliban initially shunned bin Laden. But soon they and al Qaeda closed ranks, sheltering terrorists of various ethnic and religious backgrounds. Prominent among them were Sunni extremists, particularly the Sipah-e-Sahaba organization, opposed to the Shi’ite influence in Pakistan.

As the Taliban and al Qaeda trained Sunni extremists in urban guerrilla warfare, initially with the encouragement and backing of some Arab and Pakistani governments, Iran arranged for similar training for its supporters, also in Afghanistan.

“This turned Pakistan into a battleground,” said Naseerullah Babar, Pakistan’s interior minister at the time. “Thousands of people, both Sunni and Shi’ites were killed.” The Sipah-e-Sahaba was particularly vicious and is blamed by Pakistani intelligence for the targeted killing of hundreds of innocent Shi’ites. Among the victims were a senior Iranian diplomat and several cadets of the Iranian air force visiting Pakistan.

Iran also blames Pakistan for failing to prevent the Taliban from killing several Iranian diplomats who were captured in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif in August 1998. The diplomats were attached as advisers to the Northern Alliance fighting the Taliban.

The activities of the anti-Iranian and anti-Shi’ite groups in Pakistan further strained the country’s relations with Iran, and the hope that Islamabad’s decision to abandon the Taliban would help improve ties provide futile.

The collapse of the Taliban regime brought U.S. troops into Afghanistan, where, in contrast to their reception in Iraq, they face no serious opposition from the local population. This, Iran fears, will encourage a long-term American presence in the region.

Iran quietly blamed Pakistan for making it possible for the United States to send its troops to the region by first backing the Taliban and then by providing military bases to U.S. troops for operations into Afghanistan.

Tehran’s fears worsened two weeks ago when the New Yorker magazine reported that Pakistan helped U.S. intelligence agents enter eastern Iran to identify secret nuclear sites, which could be targeted at a later stage.

Despite denials of the report by Islamabad and Washington, Iran has warned the United States not to attempt such an adventure, saying the consequences would be devastating for the entire region.

President Bush, however, said on Jan. 17 that he would not rule out military actions against Iran. One day later, then Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice urged the world to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons and threatened to refer Tehran’s nuclear case to the United Nations Security Council.

Vice President Dick Cheney followed suit, and after Mr. Bush’s second inauguration in Washington on Jan. 20 said Iran ranked at the top on the list of world trouble spots.

The Iranian government reacted by ruling out the possibility of opening talks with the United States while Mr. Bush is president unless there was a major change in policy toward Tehran.

“We will use the same language if anyone chooses to use a language of force and threats against us. But if they opt to engage in dialogue, without any precondition, on an equal footing, we will consider that,” said government spokesman Abdollah Ramezanzadeh.

Observers in the region interpreted the statements by the Americans and the Iranians as indicating that there will be no lessening of U.S.-Iranian tensions in the near future.

This, they added, could further hurt relations between Iran and Pakistan.

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