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Nuclearalisation of the Middle East

Interview with Tariq Ali

 Ardeshir Mehrdad: The recent nuclear tests by India and Pakistan have brought into sharp focus a number of festering issues, both locally and internationally. Perhaps we might start by considering what these tests signify and in particular what consequences  they will have at the regional and global level? Do you think that they may provoke a nuclear race in the Middle East or hasten the rise of chauvinist and fundamentalist movements, as well as expansionist extreme right wing governments in the region?


Tariq Ali: The end of the Cold War, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, was supposed to herald a "New World Order" and the "end of history". A world that would be conflict-free and run in the interests of the global capitalist economy. In reality the world has become more dangerous, less stable and prone to nationalist, religious and ethnic conflicts of the most virulent sort. It is in this larger context that we have to see the explosion of nuclear bombs by India and Pakistan.

The tests signify the failure of the United States as global cop and the complete failure by the European nuclear powers to control the spread and proliferation of nuclear weapons. What this reveals is the impossibility of controlling nuclear weapons without a global plan for disarmament. Why should Britain have nuclear capability, but not India? The consequences of these tests on a global level is to have challenged the West's monopoly, forcing policy-makers to think seriously once again of a new version of Gorbachev's celebrated Zero Option.

Kamikaze finger

At the regional level the South Asian tests are a complete disaster. They have already damaged the economy of both these countries, racked as they are by poverty and illiteracy. They will damage the ecology and they constitute a serious military risk, especially if the Taliban faction inside the Pakistan Army decides to make a bid for power.

The peculiarities of the Taliban are well known. What is rarely mentioned is the degree of suicidal fanaticism that is akin to that of the Japanese kamikaze pilots of World War II. I have no doubt that a Taliban general could press the nuclear button without regard to his future or that of the region as a whole. What this necessitates is a wide-ranging agreement on peace and co-operation between Pakistan and India, a solution that seems more remote than ever.


As to whether the tests will provoke a wider race in the Middle East remains to be seen. Israel has a bomb. Egypt, too. The lesser relays of the United States in the region don't need one. Gaddafi and Saddam might try and do a deal with Pakistan. Iran is bound to keep up with Pakistan. The situation is pregnant with danger. Nuclear weaponry created a secret state in Western countries. In the name of military secrecy, democratic accountability was severely curtailed. In Pakistan, those democrats who cheered the tests were cutting their own throats. The power of the military has been enormously strengthened. In India, too, the creation of this new apparatus has reduced political and democratic monitoring of the military budget.


Ardeshir Mehrdad: The long-standing rivalry between India and Pakistan is usually blamed for the escalation of the arms race in South Asia. While undoubtedly true, is this the whole explanation for the sudden upsurge of nationalism and chauvinism there? Is there any role, for instance, for the IMF structural adjustment policies in the rise of nationalist sentiment and the emergence of conservative parties and forces in the Indian subcontinent, and neighbouring regions?


Tariq Ali: The upsurge of an unpleasant nationalism in India which has taken the form of Hindu chauvinism and the use of Hindu imagery is, in my opinion, part of a global trend. There is a rise of irrationalism and politics wedded to it all over the world. In Western Europe it takes the form of the revival of old fascisms in a new garb (France, Austria, Italy and Germany). In the Middle-East and the Maghreb it is Islam which is utilised as the vehicle of reaction. But despite the different forms taken by these forces the reason they attract support from below is essentially similar.

The marginal sectors in the cities, the unemployed, the poor, the bazaar dependent on bank-loans have lost their faith in the capacity of traditional left parties to deliver the goods. The grandest symbol of this was the collapse of the Soviet Union. That was seen by the masses as the end of socialism as a global alternative.

Most of the religious fundamentalists and the neo-fascists utilise the old populist appeal of the Left to gain support. India and Pakistan are not exceptional in this regard. The deterioration of everyday life for the urban poor, in particular, has led to the politics of desperation. The IMF's structural restraints have not made things easier, but are not the primary cause.


Ardeshir Mehrdad: As you pointed out, can one ignore the reluctance of the countries of the major powers to agree to a global nuclear disarmament?


Tariq Ali: The refusal of the Western Powers to disarm their own nuclear capacities is hypocrisy of the basest sort. It panders to the delusions of the militarists in every region and stokes the fires of ugly nationalism. When an Indian or Pakistani chauvinist politician asks why their countries, otherwise asked to mimic the West, are not permitted to do so in the nuclear arena, there is no serious reply forthcoming from Washington.

The decline of the Peace Movement has also made it easier for those who want to make nuclear weapons conventional. I think a world-wide peace rally on the eve of 2000 would help to revive universalist traditions. US sanctions will not succeed in stopping the spread of nuclear weapons.

In this regard one must add that the IMF shock therapy applied to the former Soviet-Union has had a disastrous impact in this arena. Those with access to nuclear weapons and secrets now see no reason why free market rules should not apply to nuclear weaponry or plutonium. Those who sow dragon seeds must bear some responsibility for the outcome....


Ardeshir mehrdad: I agree. What do you think are the potentials for reviving the disarmament movement? In particular can you see any prospects for such a  disarmament movement in the Middle East and South Asia from taking off?

One could imagine a movement that would link de-nuclearisation of the region with a progressive demilitarisation and removal of all foreign bases and forces. In your view, does this idea have a potential for a mass movement that would cross state boundaries? Is there any life left in the old European disarmament movement and could the Indo-Pakistani bomb help revive that movement? You yourself have proposed a Paix sans frontieres. Is there enough energy out there to aim for a truly nuclear free third millennium?


Tariq Ali: I am pessimistic. I fear that a mass movement will only rise after some horror has already taken place. This reality, however, should not paralyse our capacity to act as critical individuals or intellectuals or whatever. I think an appeal should be prepared for such a movement. Together with the removal of nuclear weapons we most certainly should demand the removal of all foreign bases and troops.

However their removal would bring about the end of most of the regimes in the Gulf and to protect the oil the United States will never agree. Where there is oil, there is no need for democracy. This has always been the motto of the West since the toppling of Mossadegh in Iran.

Ardeshir Mehrdad: Perhaps we might expand a little on the practical means of achieving the widest appeal. How do you see us taking it further. Would something like a “charter” signed by as many personalities be the best way forward. Or does one go for a mass petition, which would be more difficult at the local level, at least at the beginning. Would a seminar or conference help to stimulate interest and focus the arguments?


Tariq Ali: We live in a period where mass mobilisations are restricted to funerals of celebrities. A charter calling for peace and nuclear disarmament in the next millenium and torchlight mobilisations on New Year's Eve in 1999 should be prepared now. We must get names from people all over the world and set up regional organising committees. That could be a small start. I am convinced that a world-wide appeal would have some impact. 


Ardeshir Mehrdad: Before we close our discussion, it is perhaps the right time to raise the question about current developments in Afghanistan. How do you analyse the situation in that country? Do you think that the Taliban’s conquest of most of the country can fundamentally effect the balance of power at the regional level?


Tariq Ali: The situation in Afghanistan is not very complex. There are two regional powers - Pakistan and Iran, one big power (the United States) and the Russian military intelligence now involved in a new version of the Great Game. Pakistan, which has always been a local relay of the United States, has trained, armed and organised the Taliban, an extremist Sunni fundamentalist grouping, compared to whom the Iranian clerics appear as messengers of the Enlightenment.

The Taliban cadres were educated in special madresehs in Pakistan where they were taught the virtues of blind obedience to the Saudi version of Islam and trained in warfare. This suited the United States at the time, which funded them to fight against the Russians and later, Najibullah. The latter's regime now appears as a paradise to most Afghanis and especially women.

The Taliban offensive against groups backed by Moscow and Teheran was unleashed by the Pakistan ISI (Inter-Services-Intelligence) with the tacit approval of the US Embassy in Islamabad. Washington had no desire to see Kabul run by a Moscow-Teheran coalition. Iran is prepared for a united coalition against the Taliban, which it has denounced in strong language. Relations between Teheran and Islamabad are at an All-time low. The Russians for their part are nervous of Taliban influence in Central Asia and fear that it would destabilise the region.

To this bubbling devil's cauldron (or Allah's, depending on where you stand) the United States has added a potent new ingredient by launching cruise missiles against a former CIA collaborator Ossama bin Laden. This has divided the pro-US fundamentalists and seriously embarrassed the Pakistan Army. Ossama's daughter is married to Mullah Omar, the Taliban Fuehrer and it is unlikely that he will hand his father-in-law over to the Pentagon. One of Ossama's friends is boasting that after Hilary divorces Clinton, Ossama will offer to marry her and help right the wrongs inflicted on her by her adulterous husband.

Meanwhile Pakistan's weak-kneed and corrupt Prime Minister has played the fundamentalist card by announcing that the Sharia will be the only law in Pakistan. In so doing he is taunting Washington while simultaneously pre-empting Taliban pressure inside the Pakistan Army. To say that the situation is a mess would be a slight understatement.

The Taliban are the creation of Pakistan backed by Washington. They have become a Frankenstein, but could be controlled if the Pakistan government so wished. A military/economic blockade would end the farce within a few months. The US never learns from its mistakes. They play with fire and then when it goes out of control they over-react.


Ardeshir Mehrdad: As you know, the conflict between the Taliban and the Islamic Republic regime in Iran is hotting up, bringing with it potential dangers of hostilities between them. This has prompted a number of Iranian, Afghani, European, and North and South Americans, including yourself to issue a statement and begin an international campaign to counter such a possibility. To what extent do you think such moves and actions, conducted at the regional level and addressing living issues and dangers, can help lay the foundation and act as practical steps in organising a regional and global peace movement?


Tariq Ali: If you will permit me to be slightly cynical, I would say that a war fought between the hard-line volunteers from Iran and the Taliban could be a feast for secular eyes, but short-cuts of this sort never solve the underlying problems. A war would be cruel for the people of both countries and could lead to a closure in Teheran, where the openings have provided a limited space to the citizenry. The virtual boycott of the Experts elections by the masses is a sign that popular consciousness is high. A war could change all that very quickly. Hence the need to oppose the conflict. We have to do what we can, but one antiwar demonstration in Teheran or Kabul would be worth much more. In Kabul, of course, such a thing is inconceivable.


Ardeshir Mehrdad: Thank you for giving your time.


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