January 14, 2012

AS CRISIS FESTERS, PAKISTANI GOVERNMENT PLANS CONFIDENCE VOTE

[Pakistani analysts and Western diplomats believe that the prospects of a coup are receding, for now. But the situation remains volatile as the country’s most powerful figures — senior judges, generals and politicians — engage in a bare-knuckle and unusually public bout of power games in which the United States finds itself sidelined.] 

By Declan Walsh
Image courtesy: JK Alternative Viewpoint
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Threatened with prosecution by a hostile judiciary and fearing an intervention by powerful generals, Pakistan’s embattled government turned Friday to its last bastion of strength, the national Parliament, in a bid to stall the momentum of a crisis that threatens to engulf the governing party.
Addressing Parliament, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani announced that he would ask for a vote Monday on a resolution seeking “full confidence and trust” in his coalition government. It was his latest gambit in a complex power struggle set off by the American raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May.
Pakistan’s fractious politicians must choose between “democracy and dictatorship,” Mr. Gilani said, speaking hours after President Asif Ali Zardari returned from a brief trip to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, that reignited rumors of an impending military coup.
Pakistani analysts and Western diplomats believe that the prospects of a coup are receding, for now. But the situation remains volatile as the country’s most powerful figures — senior judges, generals and politicians — engage in a bare-knuckle and unusually public bout of power games in which the United States finds itself sidelined.
At heart, the governing Pakistan Peoples Party and the military, led by Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, are struggling for control of national security policy, including the right to direct the strained relationship with the United States. A strident judiciary and the possibility of elections as early as this summer add complicating factors.
The beginning of the struggle came in the fall, when an American businessman of Pakistani origin, Mansoor Ijaz, made a startling claim: that in the acrid aftermath of the Bin Laden raid on May 2, he had been asked to take a secret letter to the Americans seeking protection for Mr. Zardari’s government from a possible military coup. In exchange, it offered to dismantle part of the country’s powerful spy agency.
Pakistan’s military angrily demanded an investigation into the unsigned memo and embraced Mr. Ijaz’s assertion that it had been dictated by Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington. Mr. Haqqani, since recalled to Pakistan, has denied that account.
However, the military ignored a later statement by Mr. Ijaz that Lt. Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the head of the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, or ISI, visited the Persian Gulf region during the same period to seek support for a coup.
A three-judge bench of the Supreme Court is investigating what the Pakistani news outlets call “Memogate” and is scheduled to make its finding by month’s end. Meanwhile Mr. Haqqani, who could face treason charges, has confined himself to Mr. Gilani’s house in Islamabad, telling reporters that he fears for his life.
The true target of the inquiry may be Mr. Haqqani’s boss: Mr. Zardari, leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party. The P.P.P. and the military have a deep mutual mistrust going back three decades. Many generals barely disguise their loathing for the president, who came to power in 2008, in elections after the assassination of his wife, Benazir Bhutto, and who has struggled to shake off a reputation of irredeemable corruption.
For most of 2011, his government sought to ease the tension by defending the embattled generals, particularly against withering domestic criticism after the Bin Laden raid from a public distrustful of the United States and fiercely protective of their nation’s sovereignty. But the rising emotions over the Memogate crisis swept any unity away.
In December, Mr. Gilani said he would not tolerate a “state within a state”; this week he fired the senior bureaucrat in the Defense Ministry, a retired three-star general. That day, the military issued a warning that the government’s statements could have “very serious ramifications with potentially grievous consequences for the country.”
One analyst saw two rationales for the military’s furious stance over the memo. First, it could be using the Supreme Court to “get Zardari out,” said Najam Sethi, editor of The Friday Times and a senior analyst with Geo, the country’s largest television news network. Second, he said, “Kayani and Pasha have both been considerably weakened by the actions of the Americans.”
“They are having to act extra tough to appease their own ranks,” Mr. Sethi said.
The conflict shows that the military “is rigid and uncompromising and not prepared to concede an inch of its turf,” he added. “It wants to run foreign policy, it wants to be able to do whatever it wants, and doesn’t want any accountability at all.”
In the past, the military has ended frustrations with civilian governments with coups, in 1958, 1969, 1977 and 1999.
This time, analysts say, the military has little incentive for such a move. The economy is in a parlous state, a homegrown Taliban insurgency bubbles in the northwest, and the generals are still smarting from the damage to their reputation from the unpopular nine-year-rule of Pervez Musharraf, which began in the most recent coup and ended in 2008.
In addition, there is unprecedented, real-time scrutiny from a vociferous electronic news media. And the generals can no longer count on the Supreme Court to rubber-stamp a takeover — although the judiciary led by Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry appears to have its own antipathy for Mr. Zardari and the P.P.P.
As the scandal raged, the court upped the stakes by renewing its order that the government cooperate with a Swiss corruption investigation against Mr. Zardari. The court accused Mr. Gilani of “willful disobedience” for not doing so, and gave the government until Monday to comply. Failure could lead to Mr. Gilani’s losing his office, it has warned, offering the prospect of a disastrous clash of institutions.
Whether Mr. Chaudhry would risk such a standoff is unclear.
The likelihood of early elections is far greater. As power drains from Mr. Zardari’s government, few believe it will last until the Parliament’s term ends in February 2013. The question is when the vote would take place, and on whose terms.
The government’s objective is to survive until Senate elections, which are to be held before March. Senators are elected by the national and provincial assemblies, and the election will probably give the P.P.P. a majority of seats and control of the upper house for six years.
But a major opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, favors early general elections — to avert such a Senate outcome and to stem the threat from a new rival, the former cricket star turned politician Imran Khan. Mr. Khan is a wild card, drawing huge crowds at recent rallies in Lahore and Karachi and threatening Mr. Sharif’s base in Punjab Province. Critics accuse him of enjoying the tacit support of the ISI.
“I don’t think the army will mount a coup because they don’t need one when they have Imran Khan,” said C. Christine Fair, an assistant professor at Georgetown University.
@  The NewYork Times

MIDDLE EAST TRIP SUGGESTS CHANGE IN POLICY BY CHINA

[Foremost is the United States’ request that China slash its purchases of Iranian oil or, under legislation just signed by President Obama, potentially face the exclusion of many of its financial institutions from the American financial system. Although the White House has wide leeway in choosing targets for enforcement, the law is by far the toughest measure aimed at pressuring Iran over its nuclear program in recent times.[ 

By Michael Wines

BEIJING — Premier Wen Jiabao heads on Saturday to the oil-producing nations of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, a six-day tour of Iran’s Persian Gulf neighbors that is the first Saudi trip by a Chinese premier in two decades, and the first ever to the other two states.
But some experts find the trip notable for a different reason: It comes as China’s strategic alliance with Iran is less certain than before.
No one outside China’s leadership knows what Mr. Wen will discuss with leaders of the three oil-rich states he is visiting, but relations with Iran — deeply feared and resented by the Saudis, somewhat less so by the others — are certain to come up.
For decades, Iran has offered China a generous supply of oil and a foothold in an American-dominated Middle East. In return it received a lucrative trade relationship and a powerful defender in the United Nations and other diplomatic circles. The latest Iranian crisis puts that comfortable arrangement under new strains, some analysts say.
Foremost is the United States’ request that China slash its purchases of Iranian oil or, under legislation just signed by President Obama, potentially face the exclusion of many of its financial institutions from the American financial system. Although the White House has wide leeway in choosing targets for enforcement, the law is by far the toughest measure aimed at pressuring Iran over its nuclear program in recent times.
The willingness of the European Union and others to consider aggressively cutting oil purchases puts the Chinese in the awkward position of bucking most of the West’s largest economies — to preserve its ties to Iran. And the history of the last year — in which seemingly secure Arab allies like Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya, another important supplier of oil, were swept out of power — throws a new element of uncertainty into China’s commitment.
Chinese leaders who pored over the Soviet Union’s demise for clues to preserving their own hold on power are unlikely to ignore the lessons of the Arab Spring. The Chinese government may also be more cautious about the side it chooses, considering the embarrassment caused when the biggest state-owned arms company was found to have offered to sell weapons to Colonel Qaddafi to put down the uprising.
“Their political influence has gone down a lot in the last year. Libya, Yemen, Syria — those are all states which had either good or very good relations with China,” said Fran├žois Godement, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Paris. “In that mood, it’s quite possible that the Chinese would decide to hedge.”
Joseph S. Nye Jr., a Harvard professor who held security and intelligence posts in the Carter and Clinton administrations, said he agreed. “The more this Iranian crutch looks weak, or weakening, the less they’re going to stick with it.”
China already has reduced the oil it buys from Iran, a move that may be aimed at trying to negotiate more favorable financing terms, or perhaps to also satisfy American demands.
There are powerful counterarguments: Iran is China’s third-biggest source of oil imports, supplying more than 5 percent of total needs. Beijing would normally balk at crimping such an important oil source in a year when its economy already shows signs of slowing. China is also Iran’s largest oil purchaser and trading partner, and a vocal expatriate community there argues vigorously against policy changes, experts say.
Beijing normally would be especially reluctant to change a significant foreign-policy strategy this year, when a pending transfer of power from Mr. Wen and President Hu Jintao has all but frozen boat-rocking initiatives.
And its network of government research organizations —whose policy papers often reflect the analyses being given government leaders — often depict Iran as a rising power displacing a declining United States that is struggling to keep its grip on the Middle East’s oil. Their frequent conclusion is that time is on Iran’s, and thus on China’s, side.
Seemingly without equivocation, China’s official statements last week rejected joining an American sanctions regime and called for more talks over the scope of Iran’s nuclear program. Yet the Obama administration appears to believe it can get the Chinese to press Iran, both by cutting its oil purchases and by other means, before enforcement of the new sanctions legislation begins in June.
Whether that is right is in doubt. Many experts say China’s interest lies in straddling the divide between Tehran and Washington.
“To maintain positive relations with the United States is essential — indeed, a key for China’s macro long-term development drive. And that drive is essential to the regime’s survival and to social stability,” said John Garver, a expert on Chinese-Iranian issues at Georgia Tech’s Sam Nunn School of International Affairs.
“If it was a question of Chinese firms being excluded from American markets, of China becoming an issue in the American presidential election and a souring of American public opinion on China, then they would have to consider their options,” he said.
The slowing global economy could give China some leeway to accommodate American demands. Beijing’s thirst for oil is likely to slacken this year, leaving it some room to purchase less from Iran without openly endorsing efforts to ostracize Tehran.
In the end, however, foreign policy in China, as elsewhere, rests on a clear-eyed calculation of the government’s best interests. And that depends on Beijing’s judgment of the viability of the current Iranian government, several analysts said.
“I think the Chinese are extremely sensitive to getting caught in a situation they cannot get out of,” Mr. Godement said. “In Iran, the quantity of Chinese investment is huge. You handle that by being slow, and reluctant to move.
“But you don’t want to be the last to move.”