Making A Difference

"Hindu Hardliners' Reactionto Muslims Is The Problem"

Iranian Ambassador to India Ali Reaza Sheikh Attar is optimistic about growing Indo-Iranian ties. In an interview with Sunil Narula, he speaks about relations between the two countries, Afghanistan and its impact on the region, the Taliban, Iran-Paki

"Hindu Hardliners' Reactionto Muslims Is The Problem"
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On Indo-Iranian relations:

On political relations: As for political relations, we realised that we have common views on regional and international affairs and hence can collaborate with each other on political issues. So I can say that—not roughly but exactly—there is no issue in the world over which we have contradictions or disputes with each other.

On economic ties: In the contemporary world we cannot develop political relations without enhancing economic ties. Both countries had the potential but unfortunately it remained unexplored for decades. It was a pity and it is a pity that Iranian and Indian businessmen now trust Europeans and Americans more than they trust each other. But in the last few years our bilateral trade has increased to over $700 million. But it is possible to increase trade threefold. It is better to focus on large projects rather than on small amounts of trade. So now we are concentrating on the petroleum industry, gas pipelines, and fertilisers, petrochemical and LPG plants. The railway industry is a priority for developing infrastructure in Iran and we know you are experienced in it. Recently we started some projects with you. Steel is another field which we can work on.

On Iran's role in mending ties between India andIndia should build better contacts the OIC: with the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC). You should not segregate yourself but should try to make constructive contacts. The OIC has some doubts about the fairness of India towards Indian Muslims, particularly in Kashmir. I don't want to go into whether this kind of doubt is right or not. But you have to explain what are your policies, what are your deficits, what are your measures for recovering these deficits. We are ready to help build better contacts between the OIC and India. India has the second largest Muslim community in the world, so it cannot ignore the OIC and the OIC cannot ignore India. Issuing statements against each other is not a fair and constructive measure.

On India's handling of its Muslim population:  I think you can pick up from the OIC's statements on the Babri Mosque problem, Kashmir problem; the reaction of some hardliners—Hindu hardliners—against Muslims has been a problem in this country since your freedom movement and maybe if it hadn't been like that you need not have had the Partition. So this dusty atmosphere should settle down.

On the situation in Afghanistan: The Afghanistan problem has its roots in its social, geo-strategic and geo-political situation and the interests of the neighbouring countries. These are the factors which make the situation in Afghanistan more and more complicated. Unfortunately, due to ethnic and to some extent religious differences among the Afghans, there are various groups which have not understood each other properly. The country has a sensitive and important position geographically. Without stability and tranquility in Afghanistan, Iran and other neighbouring countries will suffer. Iran is an example. We have more than two million Afghan refugees in a country of only 60 million. You know what kind of social and economic problems they can cause. Besides, due to the lack of control of the central government in Afghanistan, narcotics is a serious problem. Afghanistan is a major producer of narcotics. Iran has taken some very strong measures. But although we have sealed or tried to seal borders, you know how difficult this is. Besides that, Central Asia is affected by the Afghanistan situation. This is why we have involved ourselves in bringing about stability and peace in Afghanistan. You know our Deputy Foreign Minister Brujerdi has visited Afghanistan five times in the last two months. He has met all the faction leaders except the Taliban in order to create mutual trust amongst them. To some extent he has been successful. There is no clash between other groups, the only clash is between the Kabul government and the Taliban which we think is an issue which can be resolved provided the Taliban takes a better and a wiser stance.

On Pakistani support to the Taliban: Idon't have enough evidence about who is supporting the Taliban. But we are alarmed because of the stance which the Taliban has taken—the reluctance to negotiate to peacefully solve the Afghan prob-lem. The Taliban has so far been very fanatic which is not acceptable to the Afghans. It does not allow girls to go to schools. Recently I heard it has forbidden football games. These things sully the reputation of Islam. Real Islam is something else. Such behaviour should be corrected or it is harmful for the stability of the region and to Islam.

On Pakistan's role to "rectify"the Taliban's activities: Pakistan being a neighbouring country can play a role in resolving the Afghan problem. Till about a year back, Pakistan had relations with all factions in Afghanistan. But since then it has had some problems with Rabbani's government and thus its role has changed to some extent. If you want to play the role of a mediator or a peacemaker in a region, you should have equal relations with all factions. Our foreign minister was recently in Pakistan and it was agreed that Iran should play a definite role in establishing such equal relations.

On America's role in Afghanistan: America istrying to find a foothold in all the neighbouring countries of Iran and has tried its best to be in contact with all of them. It was not as successful as it wanted. Iran's capacity, capability, historical and cultural background are not things any neighbouring country or other important countries in the world can ignore. So Iran cannot be isolated. And this is the reason that America has not got a proper response from any country except Israel which actually devised the plan to isolate Iran. In Afghanistan, along with that policy, the US wants to establish a kind of presence. And it is an easy task with various groups fighting with each other and a central government which does not have control over all the country. America wants to utilise the situation but again this is a miscalculation because coming to a kind of understanding with one group doesn't mean control of Afghanistan. Besides,how can America solve the contradiction of being against fundamentalism and fanaticism and at the same time try to come to an understanding with the Taliban? Why did Ms Raphel meet the Taliban and its representatives?

On strains in Iran-Pakistan ties over Afghanistan: Our bilateral relations withPakistan are not confined to the Afghanistan issue. We have many common issues,political and economic, and we should not forget the particularly strong ties between the Pakistani and Iranian people, like the Indians and Iranians. Of course, I cannot say that our views about Afghanistan are the same as both Iran and Pakistan are very sensitive about it. They have common borders. Besides, Pakistan has some ethnic problems because of Afghanistan and the Pashtuns. So we cannot ignore each other. Pakistan and Iran should play a positive role in Afghanistan. Otherwise both will be harmed.

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On Shia and Sunni violence in Pakistan: I can-not ignore the foreign hands in such clashes among Muslim religious factions in Pakistan. This is a new phenomenon in Pakistan in the last five or six years. We cannot find in history such clashes between Shias and Sunnis and apart from the so called Sipah-e-Sahaba, the other Sunnis in Pakistan had very cordial relations with the Shias. So I can conclude that these disputes are artificial, imposed and manipulated. I would not like to comment on the identity of the foreign hand, but this foreign hand fears stability, not just between Iran and Pakistan, but even India, Afghanistan and Central Asia.

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On secularism in India: The best way of protection of minorities in a country like India, which is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country, is secularism. The word secularism has come from European languages which to some extent means the exclusion of religion from your life. But the type of secularism that you have here is respect for all religions. This is a very significant difference. This is why we admire your secularism and when our president was here he expressed admiration that such constitutional secularism can protect the minorities.

On attempts by India to instil confidence in Muslims after the demolition of the Babri Masjid: I  think the Congress politicians believe that they should make the maximum effort to instil confidence in the Muslims. I hope all political parties in this country can be successful in this. Otherwise it will cause instability. India has a great role in Asia and we should revive our Asian identity.

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On Salman Rushdie: Officially and on many occasions Iran has said it does not want to send death squads to assassinate him although we believe that he has caused many problems within the Muslim world by insulting holy values. What will be the reaction of the Jews if you insult their prophet? He has injured the sentiments not only of Muslims but also of religious people all over the world, because if you give a green signal to those who, due to psychological problems or maybe their mission, want to injure religious sentiments it is very dangerous.

On the US allocating $20 million to destablise Iran: It is ridiculous. Twenty million dollars for bringing down a regime. Even in a country less important than Iran, with $20 million you cannot do anything. So in abstract it is ridiculous but the method is very dangerous for our countries. It shows how America wants to interfere in the internal issues and freedom of other countries. It is much more dangerous than terrorism which is a real danger all over the world because it is official and governmental terrorism. The Prime Minister of India in his meeting with our foreign minister accused America of interference in the internal freedom of other countries. He said he did not subscribe to such measures and condemned it. I feel there should be a kind of international or inter-regional solidarity among countries which don't agree with this type of government terrorism in order to prevent it.

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