Report of Roundtable with Dr. Hadi Soleimanpour, Iranian Scholar on Contemporary Issues

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On December 20, 2017 Islamabad Policy Institute (IPI) hosted a round-table discussion with Dr. Hadi Soleimanpour, an Iranian scholar based at Center for International Research and Education, Tehran. Prof. Syed Sajjad Shabbir, Executive Director IPI, chaired the discussion.

In his opening remarks Prof. Bukhari welcomed Dr. Soleimanpour to IPI and hoped that deliberations will widen the spectrum of thought and touch on bilateral and regional security issues. He pointed out that historically Iran and Pakistan have enjoyed cordial relations since 1947, as Iran was the first country to recognize Pakistan as an independent state. Both nations don’t have any territorial or border dispute, and both oppose external involvement in the region. Meanwhile, enormous potential exists for expanding bilateral relations in diverse fields and both countries should explore new vistas of cooperation and deepen the bilateral relations.

In his talk Dr. Soleimanpour provided an overview of bilateral relationship and current outlook of Iran and Pakistan towards regional security. He said bilateral relationship between the two governments will be as strong as the people-to-people relationship between the two nations. People in Iran and Pakistan share similar culture, religion and civilization. Frequent exchanges between them will give rise to new social linkages, which cannot be broken despite issues in inter-state relationship.

Dr. Soleimanpour focused on regional situation. He underscored that Islamabad and Tehran share similar objectives of stability and integrity of Afghanistan. However, approach of two countries have differed in achieving those goals. Situation has been complicated by presence of extra-regional powers and their involvement is being resented by the local population.  It has given rise to extremism and terrorism. It has served neither country’s interests and also impact domestic politics.

Commenting on the role of China in the region, Dr. Soleimanpour opined that China is trying to reconnect the region. In this context, he contended that Pak-Iran ties could suffer if they don’t develop a coordinated approach towards China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). History informs us that when a third-party enters the region, the need for greater coordination and understanding increases.

China, he believed, can become a unifying factor in Pak-Iran ties by helping heal rifts in the past over Afghanistan.

Similarly, at the regional level, Dr. Soleimanpour asserted two narratives are being promoted. First, the radicalization narrative, through which U.S. attempts to justify its presence in Afghanistan. Second is the Balance of Power narrative employed by Saudi Arabia and India. However, Pakistan and Iran need to introduce a new narrative of peaceful economic development. Iran has demonstrated responsible behaviour to transition from geo-politics to geo-economics. Even during P5+1 negotiations, Iran adopted a constructive approach to resolve the issues and move forward on economic development. Since the nuclear deal 80 percent of European delegations visiting Iran have been economic and business delegations.

He emphasized that Pakistan and Iran have a culture of co-existence. We cannot let external actors separate us. We reject narratives of outsiders. We know that our security cannot be guaranteed by outsiders, thus, we must engage in more cooperation.

Dr. Hadi Soleimanpour’s talk was followed by thematic discussion first on ‘Rise of Extermism’ and later on ‘CPEC: Prospects and Challenges’.

Marvi Sirmed, social activist; and Mr. Amir Rana, head of Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies were lead commentators for discussion on extremism in Pakistan. Ms. Sirmed, sharing her views, said that extremism becomes problematic when it leads to violence. People are within their rights to have extremist and radical thoughts. Once their thoughts and views begin to negatively affect society it becomes a challenge for the whole of society. In recent times, extremism is being mainstreamed in the name of majoritarian principle of democracy. However, it is misleading. State cannot act in favor of a certain sect or a particular religious group. State needs to act as a neutral arbiter for everyone. In Pakistan curriculum taught in schools is the breeding ground of religious extremism. It otherises minority religious groups.

Mr. Aamir Rana, opined that the recent resurgence of Braelvi extremism is in response to their marginalization in power games for decades. They are ideologues and have aligned with the state. Gradually all ideological groups become independent and start dictating the state. In Pakistan, most forms of extremism are sectarian in nature. State also exploits these religious differences to further its national goals. Sectarianism, however, is the worst form of extremism because it runs as blood for extremism. Similarly, Barelvi empowerment is expression of this form of extremism.

Maulana Amin Shaheedi, a respected religious cleric, sharing his thoughts commented that the western explanations on extremism ignore some basic facts. West has democracy, but it is still suffering from extremist tendencies. West also pursues double standards on values. Imposition of a minority on a majority is unjust. The recently staged Faizabad sit-in is a reaction to those double standards. America is still promoting Al-Qaida, Taliban and Daish.  We have to look who is benefitting from current chaos and instability. Even countries disagree on the definition of terrorism and extremism. West defines terrorism in its own interest. Differences between religious groups are natural, but they should not be exaggerated. At the core, Islamic values are the answer to the injustice prevailing in Muslim world. We are connected with the world and are affected by it. We have to look at natural solution in our own cultures and religious values. We have to be clear about our ideology. It has to be based on humanity.

The next session of thematic discussion focused on ‘CPEC: Prospects and Challenges’. Dr. Fazal-ur-Rehman, Assistant Professor at National Defence University and Mr. Muhammad Faisal, Researcher at Institute of Strategic Studies.

Dr. Fazal gave a background of the CPEC initiative and its current status. He opined that, a decade ago Pakistani officialdom was the first one to propose it. Chinese didn’t show much interest in the project at that stage. Later in 2013 Chinese took the initiative and by 2015 it had been formally launched. At present, the progress on CPEC projects can be termed as ‘fairly satisfactory’. Initial problems were faced as both governments faced the challenge of creating compatibility between two countries, as they have different political and governance systems.  CPEC is progressing under the framework of Gwadar port, Energy projects, Infrastructure building and industrial cooperation. He emphasized that for Pakistan Special Economic Zones (SEZs) are most important for Pakistan. Beijing, however, is going slow on SEZs.

Dr. Fazal also noted that Pakistani political leadership created unnecessary hype about CPEC for domestic political reasons. Even the energy projects were pushed because of electoral concerns of PML-N. CPEC remains a historic opportunity for Pakistan, provided federal and provincial governments do their homework and then engage Chinese side in substantive negotiations.

On the regional front, Dr. Fazal stressed, CPEC needs to be turned into a multilateral undertaking by including regional countries such as Afghanistan and Iran in it. Meanwhile, CPEC can be integrated into Economic Cooperation Organisation’s development and connectivity agenda for furthering regional cooperation.

Mr. Muhammad Faisal, sharing his views, said that CPEC should be viewed in the context of broader geo-strategic shifts underway in the world. For China, CPEC and BRI is an attempt to connect with Europe via Eursasian heartland after U.S. announced its rebalance to Asia-Pacific strategy to balance rising China. Meanwhile for Pakistan, CPEC is a strategic lifeline for stabilizing the conflict-ridden country and beginning rehabilitation of Pakistani economy after a decade of internal strife. Similarly, CPEC will shift focus of regional competition from geo-politics to geo-economics while leading to connectivity between countries and regions.

This was followed by a vibrant Q&A session moderated by Prof. Syed Sajjad Shabbir.  In the end, Executive Director IPI thanks Dr. Hadi Soleimanpour and the participants for a thought-provoking discussion on both topics.

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