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Week of 12.5.08

Transcript: Our Pakistan Problem & The Right Approach to Iran?

BRANCACCIO: The most troublesome ally for the incoming Obama administration? Arguably, Pakistan. Even before the ratcheting up of tensions between Pakistan and India following the horrific attacks in India's financial capital last week that killed more than 150 people, there was Pakistan itself. It's a place with a weak democracy and a fair share of Taliban, Al Qaeda militants and nuclear weapons. The U.S. has invested heavily in Pakistan over the years...since 9/11, America has given more than 11 billion dollars in aid. But that kind of spending doesn't necessarily give the U.S. much leverage when it comes to encouraging Pakistan to get its act together. Not-so-secret U.S. missile attacks aimed at Al Qaeda within Pakistan's borders are alienating many Pakistanis who believe their sovereignty should be left intact. Tariq Ali grew up in Pakistan and is now a noted journalist, commentator and filmmaker based in Britain. A frequent critic of the Pakistani elite, Ali also argues that the best way for the U.S. bring security to the region... is to butt out.

Well, Tariq Ali, thank you very much for joining us.

ALI: Very good to be with you, David.

BRANCACCIO: So in Pakistan there is a tenuous government hanging on. There is a very precarious security situation. Yet you think the United States should hang back, should back off?

ALI: Well, I think it should back off militarily. That's the key. It's not that they shouldn't do good things there, helping to create an education system, for instance. But I think to invade Pakistan or to bomb parts of it is going to make the situation worse.

And in a part of the world, David, where the, as you know, the culture of revenge here is very strong. So you hit one family, and the entire extended family then regards you as an enemy for life and will do whatever they feel has to be done. And so it just makes the situation worse.

BRANCACCIO: But the U.S. military isn't doing this for kicks. There are, for instance, Taliban militants in parts of Pakistan, very concerned that maybe Osama bin Laden himself is hiding out in a cave. There's some bad people that have to be dealt with.

ALI: Yeah. But the effect of that could be to split the Pakistan military. And a lot of military people will then say this is intolerable. And if the unity of the Pakistani military is broken then heaven knows what could happen in that country.

BRANCACCIO: Pakistan's military has been divided over U.S. policy ever since former President Pervez Musharraf pledged to support the U.S. after 9/11.

On one side, says Ali, are higher-ranking officers with ties to the Pentagon who tolerate U.S. actions in the region. On the other side are the vast majority of officers who resent the U.S., according to Ali, they're fed up with American incursions on Pakistani soil... and it's possible their anger could create a dangerous situation.

ALI: Pakistan is a country with nuclear weapons. And with a split military and if conditions of civil war are created then all bets are off. I mean, when I traveled in the States and—and the West, generally the feeling is that a group of bearded Jihadi terrorists are on the verge of capturing the nuclear facility.

That is not true 'cause these people are a tiny minority. But were the military to split then anything could happen

BRANCACCIO: The way to make sure that doesn't happen, says Ali, is for the U.S. to actually scale back its presence in the region...First and foremost, ending the war in Afghanistan.

ALI: The first step has to be an exit strategy from Afghanistan 'cause if they don't come up with one, the situation is going to get worse and worse and worse. It's not going to get better.

And talking or having illusions that General Petraeus can work a cure I don't think applies to Afghanistan because the British intelligence and British diplomats have publicly said we've lost the war. And sending in more troops isn't going to help.

BRANCACCIO: Obama, during the campaign, his position had been quite strongly more troops for Afghanistan.

ALI: I know. I was very shocked when I saw that debate between him and—McCain. Because he's certainly got advisors now around him who know perfectly well what is going on in Afghanistan. And this is not a war that the West can win.

BRANCACCIO: The fact is there have been exchanges of bringing the Taliban—into the fold, into the coalition in Afghanistan.

ALI: This is absolutely right. And both British and U.S. intelligence—people have been talking to them. I mean, the American military hasn't directly. But certainly both these countries are heavily engaged in negotiations. The Taliban or the neo-Taliban, as the Brits call it these days—

BRANCACCIO: It's called the neo-Taliban now?

ALI: Well, it's called the neo-Taliban—

BRANCACCIO: The—the reconstituted Taliban?

ALI: Yeah, they've called it the neo one because a lot of new people have joined them now. And these are quite snazzy people who wear suits and have cell phones and have spin doctors and put out videos and appear on television. I think the neo-Taliban has to be part of a coalition. But this coalition has to include people from other parts of the country. They can't be given power alone. And for that you need to involve the regional powers in a settlement, Iran, Russia. This might not please—

BRANCACCIO: Maybe China.

ALI: And possibly China. Chinese money will be needed to reconstruct the country.

BRANCACCIO: But the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, have thrown the region into chaos, as India accuses Pakistani nationals of planning the operation. In that environment, new thinking for Afghanistan will have to wait.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited New Delhi this week to encourage India and Pakistan to cooperate. But there's a longer-term sense that American power and influence is on the wane worldwide.

There is this recent report called "Global Trends" that the U.S. intelligence agencies came together with this report says that by about 2025 the U.S. is not gonna be the superpower. A multi-polar world is coming back. A shift of resources and power from west to east. This is our own spies are saying this.

ALI: I know. I think that's absolutely accurate. And I think you can see the trends already. The—the center of economic power certainly has shifted to the East. I think the Far Eastern bloc is going to become a critically important bloc over the next 20 to 30 years. And the notion that any one country is going to dominate the world I think has to be abandoned.

BRANCACCIO: How can the U.S. help properly? The United States has been pretty good at giving money to Pakistan's military over the years but you're not arguing a complete disengagement.

ALI: Not at all. I'm saying that there should be an engagement. But the engagement should be constructive. The country is without an education system. It's without a health system for the overwhelming majority. The elite is so callous and corrupt that it lives in a bubble of its own. According to UN development statistics, 60 percent of the children born in Pakistan over the last ten years have been born moderately or severely stunted due to malnutrition. In other words, the height of the average Pakistani is going down, not up. And not a single politician felt obliged to comment on this statistic. So that is the sort of chamber of horrors we're talking about.

BRANCACCIO: As you outline the challenges, in parts of Pakistan there's very little government at all. Education. And you talk a lot about in the book the need for land reform. You got a feudal system going on in parts of the country. Challenges are large.

ALI: The challenges are large. And the politicians currently in power are incapable of—solving them. Which is why I've been thinking that we need a UNESCO or some UN subsidiary intervention to say, "Right. We're going to come in. We're going to raise the money globally. We're going to put eight teachers' training universities in eight big cities just to train Pakistanis how to teach." But that could be the first step. And I think on this were the West and China or whoever to put pressure, it would happen because how can any government say, "We don't want our people to be educated"?

BRANCACCIO: But now the global economy is spiraling downward. And if you take a look at Pakistan, inflation is running about 25 percent—

ALI: I know.

BRANCACCIO: —last time I checked. So an added stress on this country.

ALI: You know, this is absolutely true. And people are starving. The price of wheat has shot up so much, the wheat produced in the country is being sold at high prices, is being smuggled out—with members of parliament playing the role of benign protectors of the smugglers and probably getting cuts. Sometimes when I go there, I feel that it—this is what France must have been like before the revolution erupted in 1789. It has that feel. That there are no sort of big organized movements. But the people are angry. And that they could explode. And I was saying this, David, to a Pakistani friend of mine. And he said, "It's funny you say that because the other day I went to a wedding on which billions had been spent by someone from the elite—" and he said, "Inside the images they had recreated with trees and bushes were the palace of Versailles." So I said, "Right. That's very interesting." How on earth did they think of that?

BRANCACCIO: And we know how that turned out.

ALI: Yeah.

BRANCACCIO: Well, Mr. Ali, thank you very much.

ALI: Thank you.

BRANCACCIO: Tariq Ali lives in London. His latest book is called The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power.

For the first time since the revolution in 1979, an Iranian head of state has sent a letter of congratulations to an incoming U.S. president. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's letter seemed to warn that unspecified "opportunities" won't last forever, whatever that meant. Iran continues to deny evidence its nuclear program has military aspirations but it is a regime that's on the record as wanting to wipe out the state of Israel. Hooman Majd was born in Tehran, grew up in the U.S. and had a flourishing career as a record industry executive, among other things. He goes back to Iran a lot. His rather picaresque and wild book about the place is called "The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran."

Mr. Majd, welcome.

MAJD: Thank you very much.

BRANCACCIO: This is a key thing. Obama gets elected; the letter comes from Ahmadinejad to Obama, congratulations. And he talks about some unspecified opportunities that won't last forever. What do you make of that?

MAJD: I think he's talking about the opportunity for President Obama to follow through on his campaign pledge, his early campaign pledges, which was to talk to Iran. Negotiate with Iran without preconditions. This has been the sticking point for Iran from day one. I was in Tehran when Ahmadinejad gave his speech in 2007 to a huge crowd and he said, you know, the "Americans say, 'stop enriching uranium, and then we'll come and talk to you.'" And what we say to them is, if we stop enriching uranium, what is there to talk about?

BRANCACCIO: It is possible that Iran and the United States, Iran and the west, could be on the verge—I don't know exactly when—of some kind of confrontation. We're talking about missiles flying.

MAJD: That's possible, I guess, yes.

BRANCACCIO: Well, just reading in recent days that in fact, the—it is calculated the Iranians now have enough enriched uranium to make a bomb.

MAJD: But that doesn't mean they're necessarily gonna actually go and build a bomb. I think the main issue for Americans, and certainly for the—the new government in the United States, which comes into office in January, is how do we persuade Iran to not take that step? We can't take the knowledge away from them any more.

How do we persuade them, the way we persuaded South Africa, the way we keep persuading Brazil and Japan and other countries that have the capability to build a bomb in a long weekend, if they wanted to, that they don't need to do that?

BRANCACCIO: Well, to choose the right path forward so we don't end up there, we have to really understand who we're dealing with.

MAJD: Yes.

BRANCACCIO: Now, Hooman, you've helped with a little bit of that, how is it that a cool guy like you ended up translating for the President of Iran, when the President of Iran gave the big speech at the United Nations?

MAJD: I've done that a number of times for the President of—

BRANCACCIO: You're the actual guy, and you were listening to the headset—

MAJD: I just—yes, yes—

BRANCACCIO: It was you?

MAJD: Yeah, it's me. I had a close relation—still have a close relationship with former President Khatami. And when Khatami was here after he was president in 2006, he asked me to accompany him as an advisor, as a consultant, on his trip in America, on various stops in America.

And out of the blue, he said, "Well, you know, your English is better than anyone else's around here. Could you just be the translator?" I said, "Oh, I'm not a professional interpreter. I don't—I'll try." And so—I did, and then the Iranian government obviously heard it and saw it, and so they asked me to do the same thing for President Ahmadinejad. And said, "Okay, I will, I'd be happy to." Unpaid—I don't wanna be an employee of the Iranian government, and I said, "As long as I can write about it. As a journalist, as a writer, nothing is off the record." And they said, "That's fine."

BRANCACCIO: But do the Iranian people understand that the president, who represents them in the public sphere, Ahmadinejad—I mean, he hasn't exactly been all sweetness and light. His rhetoric —

MAJD: Exactly.

BRANCACCIO:—is very tough.

MAJD: Yes.

BRANCACCIO: That's one way to put it.

MAJD: The rhetoric that he uses with respect to Israel is very inflammatory.

BRANCACCIO: Well, it's crazy inflammatory, some of Ahmadinejad's rhetoric. The famous line about—Israel should be wiped from the face of the earth.

MAJD: Yes. That—

BRANCACCIO: That has stuck in people's minds.

MAJD: That has stuck in people's minds. And unfortunately, it was not a good translation of what he said in Farsi. He actually just repeated, he was quoting, a speech by Ayatollah Khomeini, who said, and his exact words were: "The regime that occupies Jerusalem will one day vanish from the pages of time."

The main point, as far as Iranians were concerned, was "the regime that occupies Jerusalem," which means the regime, the government of Israel.

BRANCACCIO: But isn't that sort of playing with fire? 'Cause yes, it does accrue political benefits within Iran.

MAJD: Yes. Or within the Arab world.

BRANCACCIO: To embrace the extreme interpretation of that line. But it has a cost. It almost seems counterproductive.

MAJD: Well, as far as they're concerned, the cost was—it was worth it. Because at that point, they didn't think either the United States or Israel was going to go to war over Iran—with Iran over those words. And their calculation was right in this case. They, neither Israel nor the United States has gone to war. But Iranians like to stake out a position. They like to stake out—and when I say the Iranians, the Iranian government in this case, likes to stake out a position, likes to stake out a position that it is a superpower in the region. It should be reckoned with. It should be viewed as a legitimate government. It should be viewed with respect.

BRANCACCIO: I've just seen the statistic, that it's a very young population. About half the population is under about 25 or 26 years-old. Is it something that's really apparent, and if so, what does it—what does it mean to Iran?

MAJD: It's very apparent. And I think the government's very well aware of it, and as—that's one of the reasons I think the government isn't as strict with social behavior as they would like to be, sometimes.

BRANCACCIO: But what does that say to you? And is there an implication for the U.S. relationship with Iran. What does it say to you?

MAJD: What it says to me is the Iranian people want more freedom than they have, they'll take whatever freedoms they can, but, it says to me that the Iranian government is smart enough not to, you know, really annoy—a p—a population of young people to the point where they may become revolutionary.

It also means it's an opportunity for the United States. 'Cause these young people all watch American television, they all have satellite dishes, they w—all are on the internet. What's really interesting in terms of the administration of George Bush and Iran, is George Bush has been very—he's tried to make it be very clear on numerous occasions, that, you know, he has a problem with the government of Iran. You—you know, the people of Iran, we love them, And he says then that I want to talk directly to the Iranian people. So, he goes on Voice of America television which is run by the U.S. government, but, it's considered by even young people in Iran as a propaganda device of the U.S. government. President Bush, if he had wanted to talk to the Iranian people, to these young people who would actually be quite receptive to what he has to say, all you have to do is go on Iranian television.

BRANCACCIO: Hooman, from your travels in Iran, how are U.S. sponsored sanctions playing out in the lives of people? Do they anger people? How—is it something that's front and center?

MAJD: The problem with the sanctions, what's happened with the sanctions, is America's put a tremendous amount of pressure on foreign banks—that are not American banks normally would've done a lot of business with Iran, and they don't anymore. Letters of credit for businesses are impossible to get. Wiring money through the system, the world financial system, is very difficult for Iran right now.

I mean, some people are blaming the Ahmadinejad government for these sanctions, but they believe that his rhetoric that you were talking about earlier, has caused—has been able—has given the United States an excuse to get the support from the world to impose these sanctions on Iran. And it has affected the people.

BRANCACCIO: So, maybe it's causing pressure—

MAJD: It is—

BRANCACCIO:—to not speak in those ways.

MAJD: It is. And that's why I think you actually see his rhetoric has been toned down a little bit. Not so much at the U.N., he does—he did call Israel a cesspool again this year at the UN, which wasn't helpful. But generally speaking, I mean, him sending a congratulatory note to President-Elect Obama is unheard of. No Iranian leader has done that in 30 years.

BRANCACCIO: The key to any kind of dialogue, at whatever level, is finding areas of mutual interest—

MAJD: Exactly.

BRANCACCIO: And there are some, you think?

MAJD: There are plenty. There are many, many areas of mutual interest. Afghanistan, Iraq are two areas of mutual interest.

Iran is absolutely—the mortal enemy of the Taliban, and do not want to see the Taliban back in power in Afghanistan. Under any circumstances. Which is, again, our—our goal in Afghanistan as well, to not allow the Taliban to come back into power, take over the country. They're mortal enemies of Al Qaeda. Nobody wants Al Qaeda vanquished as much as Iran does, other than the United States.

BRANCACCIO: And that comes as a shock to some Americans—

MAJD: Yes.

BRANCACCIO: Just when you say that. "What?" They say.

MAJD: Yes. Well, you know, let's remember, Al Qaeda has called the Shiites worse than the Jews and Shiites could be killed by any Sunni, by any Al Qaeda member at will. That's how much they hate the Shiites.

Al Qaeda is a threat to Iran, as far as they're concerned. Which is why, after 9/11, I—Iran helped the United States and Afghanistan. And—and by the way, the George Bush administration admitted and, you know, was grateful for that help. But they responded by putting Iran in the axis of evil after that, which was a big problem for Iran. But at the time, there were negotiations with Iran. And Iran helped with Afghanistan. They were very happy to see the Taliban gone. So mutual interests in the region certainly. The one area where there is a big disagreement is Israel/Palestine, where the United States supports a two state solution. Iran supports a one state solution at this point. Which—

BRANCACCIO: Yeah, and it's a biggie.

MAJD: It's a biggie. But if you have mutual interest for the Gulf—Persian Gulf—and Afghanistan and Iraq, obviously. And then, you say, "Okay, let's sit down." They're willing to sit down and talk about it. But they want to be at the table.

BRANCACCIO: Well, Hooman Majd, man of two worlds, US and Iran. Author of The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran. Thank you very much.

MAJD: Thank you very much. Thanks very much for having me.

BRANCACCIO: One story of hope coming out of the region is that of Greg Mortensen, who's been spearheading efforts to educate tens of thousands of children, particularly girls, in remote parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Catch our web-exclusive interview with Mortensen about the current state of both his mission and the volatile region.

Before we go, I'd like to ask you a favor if you like this kind of journalism, then please take a moment and show you value this by giving generously to your local public television station.

And that's it for NOW. From New York, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you again next week.

Our Pakistan Problem

The Right Approach to Iran?

Book Excerpt: "The Duel"

Book Excerpt: "The Ayatollah Begs to Differ"

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