Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Pakistan, Iran on a Collision Course

United Press International:
A diplomatic spat in Pakistan's southwestern province of Baluchistan may lead to a bitter confrontation between two Islamic nations -- Pakistan and Iran -- and also adversely affect U.S. efforts to fight al-Qaida in neighboring Afghanistan.

The fact that Pakistan, already possesses nuclear weapons and Iran desires them to, makes the situation even more precarious. On Tuesday, Baluchistan's Chief Minister Jam Mohammed Yusuf blamed Iran for fomenting trouble in his province, although on the same day officials in the federal capital, Islamabad, denied any Iranian involvement in Baluchistan.

"Outside forces ... may be Iran, are involved," said Yusuf during an interview to Pakistan's private ARY Television when asked if he saw foreign involvement in Baluchistan. This is the first time that a senior Pakistani official has directly blamed Iran for stirring trouble inside Pakistan. In the past it was India which was usually blamed for such troubles.

Last week Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf had 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 activities against Pakistan is encouraged," he said in an interview to the private Geo TV.

Without naming them, he said the same powers were opposed to the construction of the Gwadar port in Baluchistan, which is being built with the Chinese help to make it a hub of trade connecting Pakistan, Central Asian States and Afghanistan.

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

"Instability in Baluchistan will definitely benefit the Taliban and al-Qaida movements," says Rashid Khalid, who teaches strategic studies at Islamabad's Quaid-e-Azam University. Khalid believes that if the Pakistani military loses its grip on Baluchistan, there will be no other force to check religious militants who already have strong pockets inside the province.

"It will weaken Islamabad's control, allowing Taliban and al-Qaida suspects to move freely across this large province. They can simply conduct raids in Afghanistan and flee to Baluchistan to hide among local tribes."

One possibility, according to Khalid, to stop this from happening would be a direct U.S. intervention but with its forces already stretched thin in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States may not want to undertake another major responsibility in the region. ...

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