Defying the increasing international pressure to isolate Iran, President Asif Ali Zardari talked trade, investment and energy with his Iranian counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, on the sidelines of the 16th summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).
In what may also be construed as a symbolic move, the two leaders discussed the situation in Afghanistan and Syria – two war theatres where Pakistan’s uneasy ally, the United States, plays a major role and is particularly wary of Iranian influence in both.
Amidst the flourishes and diplomatic niceties of a leader-studded multilateral summit, President Zardari also met Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and President of Tajikistan Emomali Rahmonov.
All talks centred on more trade and regional integration, and better ties with neighbours.
Talk with Ahmadinejad
Presidents Zardari and Ahmadinejad reaffirmed their commitment to complete work on several joint projects, including the multi-billion dollar Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, electricity transmission lines and road links.
The US has been persistently trying to convince Islamabad to abandon the IP gas pipeline project, and sweetening the offer with various other gas projects originating from Central Asian states and passing through Afghanistan.
Islamabad, until now, has appeared to defy the pressure.
The president noted that the current volume of trade between the two countries is far below the existing potential and said there is a need to remove tariff and non-tariff barriers and identify alternative arrangements to expand the bilateral trade.
The two sides also reviewed progress on the mega projects, including the IP gas pipeline, the 1,000MW Taftan-Quetta power transmission line, the 100MW Gwadar power supply project, construction of Noshki-Dalbandin section of Quetta-Taftan Highway and up-gradation of the Quetta-Taftan railway track.
The leadership also discussed issues related to visa facilitation and opening of the new border posts to connect Karachi and Gawadar with Chah Bahar and Bandar Abbas through the coastal highway.
The two sides also agreed in principle to operate new flights between Islamabad and Tehran, Peshawar and Mashhad, and Quetta and Gilgit to Mashhad.
The regional situation especially that of Afghanistan and Syria also came under discussion.
Pakistan desires an immediate end to the bloodshed in Syria and will continue advocating principles of non intervention and non interference in the internal affairs of states, the president said.
President Zardari also expressed condolences over the losses that Iran suffered due to the recent earthquake and offered all possible assistance.
Dialogue with India
In his meeting with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, President Zardari said that Pakistan and India must make determined efforts and maintain focus to steer the dialogue process in a productive and result-oriented manner.
“We have covered a lot of ground but we still have to go a long way,” President Zardari said, adding it is important to move beyond reiteration of positions to more substantive results. He added that Pakistan was keenly looking forward to the visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at an early date.
Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar later described the meeting between the two leaders, as “good”.
“There is ample proof that the political leadership of the two countries is committed to improving and normalising ties,” Khar said.
She said that Pakistan believes it is the right approach to have better ties with all countries, particularly those in the region.
The foreign secretaries of the two countries are meeting at Islamabad in September to review the second round of dialogue process that resumed after a gap of two years, following the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
India has acceded to President Asif Zardari’s request to allow a judicial commission from Pakistan to cross-examine three witnesses related to the trial of 26/11 attacker Ajmal Kasab, The Hindustan Times reported on Thursday.
“The government has a positive view on this request from Pakistan,” the newspaper quoted Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai as saying following a 40-minute meeting between President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the sidelines of the NAM summit.
During the meeting, Singh urged Zardari to speed up the conclusion of the trial of seven accused in Pakistan in connection with the 26/11 attacks.
Zardari said “the judicial requirements in Pakistan were slowing down the process and brought up again the issue of cross-examining three witnesses in India” — the magistrate who recorded Kasab’s statement and two doctors involved in his examination.
President Zardari and President of Tajikistan Emomali Rahmonov also met on Thursday and discussed bilateral ties, cooperation in trade and energy sectors and vowed to make the forthcoming quadrilateral summit in Islamabad a success.
President Zardari, who has extended an invitation to the presidents of Russia, Afghanistan and Tajikistan to participate in the 4th Quadrilateral Summit in Islamabad on September 26 – 27, hoped the meeting would help the participating countries chart out a joint future course of action for regional peace.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 31st, 2012.