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October 25, 2018

Israel-driven policy leading US to conflict with Iran: Imran


October 25, 2018

Islamabad : Prime Minister Imran Khan has told the Middle East Eye, a London-based website — that his country must continue to prioritise good relations with Saudi Arabia despite the killing of Jamal Khashoggi because of Pakistan’s dire economic crisis.

In his first interview with foreign journalists since taking office in August, Khan admitted that he could not afford not to attend the investment conference in Saudi Arabia.

Though shocked by Khashoggi’s killing, the PM said the Pakistani government needed urgent access to Saudi loans to avoid defaulting on record levels of debt within months.

“We’re desperate at the moment,” Khan said.

He was speaking in his privately-owned home perched on a hill in the village of Bani Gala high above Islamabad with a gorgeous view of farms and a distant lake, before leaving for an investment conference.

Khan concedes however that his immediate foreign policy priority is maintaining good relations with Saudi Arabia despite worldwide outrage at Khashoggi’s suspected murder by Saudi officials.

He described the journalist’s death as “sad beyond belief”, and indicated that he did not consider credible the latest official Saudi account of what happened.

“What happened in Turkey was just shocking. What should I say? It shocked all of us,” he said.

“The Saudi government will have to come up with an answer… We wait for whatever the Saudi explanation is. We hope there is an explanation that satisfies people and those responsible are punished.”

But Khan said he had no choice but to attend Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Future Investment Summit because his country was so deep in debt.

“The reason I feel I have to avail myself of this opportunity [to speak to the Saudi leadership] is because in a country of 210 million people right now we have the worst debt crisis in our history, he told MEE, as he fidgeted with worry beads.

“Unless we get loans from friendly countries or the IMF [the International Monetary Fund] we actually won’t have in another two or three months enough foreign exchange to service our debts or to pay for our imports. So we’re desperate at the moment.”

Khan added that Pakistan would probably need loans from both friendly governments and the IMF to meet its commitments.

Khan called on the US to drop its sanctions against Iran, Saudi Arabia’s bitter regional rival, which he said had also been detrimental to the economy of neighbouring Pakistan.

And he urged US President Donald Trump to stop seeking to provoke a conflict there, and suggested that his government could play a mediating role between Tehran and Riyadh.

“The last thing the Muslim world needs is another conflict. The Trump administration is moving towards one,” he said.

He unambiguously blamed the US and Israel: “The US-Iran situation is disturbing for all of us in the Muslim world... The last thing the Muslim world wants is another conflict. The worrying part is that the Trump administration is moving towards some sort of conflict with Iran.

“From our point of view, Iran is a neighbour. We already have a problem with one neighbour, Afghanistan… This is a policy driven by Israel which is leading the US to a conflict with Iran,” he said.

He pointed out that Iran was staying faithful to the nuclear deal signed with the US, Russia, China, the UK, France and Germany, but the Trump administration’s decision to repudiate it and impose sanctions on Iran directly affected Pakistan.

“Oil prices have already almost doubled in the last year and a half. The impact it has on poor countries in terms of creating more poverty. So I hope that sanity prevails and this rhetoric doesn’t lead to conflict.”

Asked if he would like the US to drop its sanctions on Iran, he replied unhesitatingly: “Yes, I would.”

US sanctions had scuppered plans for a gas pipeline from Iran to Pakistan, and impeded trade and banking, he explained. He also worried over the risk that the confrontation between largely Sunni Saudi Arabia and largely Shia Iran could heighten sectarian tensions in Pakistan.

“Twenty percent of our population, almost 40 million people, are Shia. Pakistan has traditionally had very powerful, very close relations with Saudi Arabia. Not only because in times of need Saudi Arabia has helped us. There are also two million Pakistani workers in Saudi Arabia. The country depends on their remittances,” he said.

“The best thing which could happen is us playing the role of bringing them together, somehow helping in alleviating and getting rid of this conflict,” he said.

Nevertheless there have been media reports that Pakistani trainers have been on the Yemeni border advising Saudi forces. In his MEE interview Khan categorically denied this.

“It [our military] is not taking part in any action in Yemen. It is not involved in any conflict in Yemen,” he said.

Khan referred repeatedly to the fact that wars rarely go as smoothly as the planners want. He cited the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, which the US expected to lead to quick success but turned into quagmires lasting for years.

During his visit to Riyadh in September he had made the same point to the Saudi leadership in connection with Yemen, he revealed.

“I have always opposed military solutions”, he told MEE. “So when I went the first time to Saudi Arabia I gave my opinion that whenever military men tell you that it’s only a matter of weeks or months, whenever you start a war it has unintended consequences.”

Khan also urged western and Arab governments to reopen their embassies in Damascus, now that pro-Syrian government forces have reclaimed most of the country after seven years of civil war.

Such a move would mark a remarkable reversal of policy by governments which closed their embassies in the early months of the war and called on President Bashar al-Assad to resign.

Pakistan has been one of the few countries which has kept its embassy open throughout the conflict.

Meanwhile, in neighbouring Afghanistan, Khan noted that the US had come round to accepting the need for talks with the Taliban, and suggested that one radical solution to the country’s problems could be a coalition government in which the Taliban shared power.

On Syria he took a strong line, arguing that outside interference by foreign states to bring about regime change there had caused more problems and was wrong.

Asked if he thought Assad had won, he replied: “The people of Syria have lost. But I guess he [Assad] is in control now… Look at the suffering of the people. So yes, the answer is there should be peace there. Syria does not need more military action for regime change.”

Khan has long been a critic of US military involvement in Pakistan as well as the Middle East.

Referring to 9/11 attacks in the US, Khan said: “General Musharraf got pressured by the Americans and did something which was probably the biggest blunder committed by a Pakistani leader.”

“What happened in the tribal areas was almost a civil war with people standing up against our troops because of the collateral damage, and this ended in a full-fledged operation where half the people ended up being internally displaced.

“Almost three million people were displaced out of six million in the population. The whole area was devastated by the war in 10 or 12 years. It’s still not safe right now. We ended up losing almost 80,000 people dead. And that was under American pressure.”

He insisted that “what should never happen again is that Pakistan on anyone’s insistence including the Americans should ever send troops against our own people”.

He said that “for advocating a political settlement 10 years ago they call me Taliban Khan”. He welcomed the fact that the Americans had finally realised there was no military solution in Afghanistan and had started talks with the Taliban.

He said he wished Saturday’s parliamentary elections in Afghanistan had been delayed and some sort of power-sharing deal had been agreed with the Taliban. It should still happen, he believes.

“I think there is a realisation that the Taliban cannot be defeated and I guess the Taliban realise that the other forces, the Northern Alliance, President Ghani’s government, cannot be defeated. So they would come to some sort of power-sharing agreement, which is the only solution.”

Khan acknowledged his line of thinking used to be considered anti-American. But he claimed that now that the US accepted there was no military solution in Afghanistan Pakistan’s relations with the US would be better than at any time in the last 10 years.

In his MEE interview, Khan was more diplomatic. A former captain of Pakistan’s national cricket team, he used a cricketing metaphor about a batsman who does not engage with a wide ball but lets it go past him to the wicket-keeper.

Asked what he thought of Trump, he said: “If I wasn’t the Prime minister, I would have given my views. Being the Prime Minister I have much more responsibility, so I’ll just say as we say in cricket, ‘well left’.”

Speaking in Geo News programme “Aaj Shahzeb Khanzada kay saath”, Prime Minister’s special assistant Naeemul Haque has said neither any formal request for an interview was submitted by the foreign media nor was one offered. “We were told that a cricket author was coming to meet the prime minister and present his book to Imran Khan, being his old buddy.

“We were told that some other people would also accompany the cricket author, but we didn’t know that they were journalists. None of us all including Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry, PM’s Advisor on Media Iftikhar Durrani as well as I knew that an interview of the premier was requested or offered.

“The prime minister is not giving any interview to the foreign media currently. We were of an impression that the visitors were some book authors and hence taking general notes of premier’s talk. A Pakistani attached with the Institute of Strategic Studies was also among the visitors.

“We were of the impression that all these people were on a study tour to Pakistan. They did place a recording device in front of the premier, but there was no impression of any formal interview,” clarified the special assistant.

Haque said that no political questions were asked from the prime minister in his presence and he (PM) did not use word “desperate” at that time. “Had we been informed that reporters of any newspaper or magazine were there to conduct any interview of the premier, the mode of talk would have been quite different,” he added.

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