Pakistan and Israel deal Iran a blowPARIS - The meeting on Thursday between the foreign ministers of Israel and Pakistan in Istanbul is a huge success for Israel's diplomacy and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and, in the short term, a setback for Iran.
The meeting between Silvan Shalom of Israel and Khurseed Mahmoud Kasuri of Pakistan, described by many observers as historic, was the fruit of secret efforts by the pro-Islamic Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to help diffuse Middle East tensions.
The three countries involved in the meeting are Washington's close strategic allies, while Turkey has deep military and security cooperation with Israel.
"It is no coincidence that this meeting took place here in Turkey, this great Muslim democracy, and Israel's long-standing friend," Shalom observed, adding, "Israel's relations with Turkey are proof that Israel can enjoy good and mutually beneficial relations with our Muslim neighbors."
"The meeting between Pakistan and Israel is a great blow to the policies of the Islamic republic based on an unabated antagonism with Israel and the 'Palestiniation' of its diplomacy which, in the past two decades, were the cause of many crises in Iran's foreign relations and increases in tensions with the United States, resulting in huge damage to our national interests," commented Iran Emrooz, a Persian-language Internet news website based in Germany.
So far, there has been no comment from Tehran, but a source close to the new government of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said, "They are shocked to the point of being choked off," referring to the Iranian leaders.
"As usual, when Iranian officials are jolted and horrified to the point of being astounded at some news they are not ready for, they keep silent until the oracle comes from the leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei," the source added, speaking on condition of not being named.
The sole Muslim regime to have openly made the destruction of the Jewish state a pillar principle of its foreign policy, Iran is now more isolated than ever before in the region, in the Muslim community and in the world, as Israel has diplomatic relations with most Muslim nations in Central Asia. It is also recognized at different levels by most of the Persian Gulf sheikdoms and has a presence in Afghanistan and also in Iraq, thanks to the traditional ties it enjoys with the Kurds.
"As a result of a foolish diplomacy based on the destruction of Israel, Iran has suffered enormous diplomatic humiliations and economic losses," said Dr Shahin Fatemi, a professor of Economy at the American University of Paris.
"The biggest danger for the Islamic republic is that the Pakistanis, under growing pressures from Washington, might inform Israel on the extent of cooperation offered by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the so-called father of Pakistan's atomic bomb and the materials he sold to Tehran secretly," said Hasan Shari'atmadari, a member of the Iranian Republican Movement based in Hamburg, Germany.
According to Western intelligence agencies, Khan sold Iran hundreds of aging centrifuges that helped Iranian technicians build a more advanced type, known as P-2, an important step for enriching uranium and ultimately making nuclear weapons.
"For the time being, Tehran will keep quiet, swallow the blow, giving itself time to recover, but there is no doubt that the regime will feel badly isolated in being the mother of all nations dedicated to the annihilation of Israel," Shari'atmadari told Asia Times Online in a telephone interview.
Shari'atmadari is the son of the late Grand Ayatollah Kazem Shari'atmadari, who was "defrocked" by Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic revolution of 1979, on suspicion of encouraging a counter-revolutionary coup.
However, Shari'atmadari said that the rapprochement between Israel and Pakistan, a close friend of the Islamic republic, could "also pave the way for normalization of relations between Tehran and Washington, ties that were cut off after Iranian revolutionary students stormed the American Embassy in Tehran in November 1979, taking 55 American diplomats and staff as hostages for 444 days.
Mas'oud Behnoud, a veteran Iranian journalist and political commentator based in London, shares this view. "This has an historic dimension that could eventually help pave the way to direct negotiations between Iran and the United States," he told Asia Times Online. "In the longer term, it will give Iran the opportunity to come to a kind of rapprochement with Washington."
In Behnoud's opinion, Ali Larijani, the new top Iranian nuclear negotiator, has his own plans on that point, based on "a give and take involving the security of both Iran and Israel".
Fatemi said the meeting at the Dort Mowsem (Four Seasons in Turkish) Hotel of Istanbul was "the beginning of a political current in the region that will take all other Arab and Muslim nations to recognize the Jewish state".
Describing as "very courageous" the decision of President General Pervez Musharraf to give the green light to the meeting, Fatemi also said that as a result (of Israeli-Pakistani rapprochement), the Islamic republic, now under a fundamentalist president, would face "major, unseen difficulties".
Although Shalom expressed hope after meeting with his Pakistani counterpart that Tel Aviv and Islamabad would announce the establishment of diplomatic ties during the next meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on September 14, Musharraf ruled out such an event in the near future.
Musharraf, commenting on the decision to engage Israel, as well as meet leaders of the Jewish community when he visits New York later this month, said: "No one should be annoyed by it. My aim is to strengthen the cause of Palestine."
Threatened by protests from Pakistan's powerful fundamentalist parties and organizations opposed to Israel, Musharraf said: "We will not talk about recognition of Israel until a Palestinian state is established and then we will think about it. We will take people along. This is indirect contact."
Defending the meeting, he said it was backed by Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. "We consulted his highness Saudi King Abdullah and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and both appreciated our move and gave us the go-ahead signal," Musharraf told reporters in the southwestern city of Quetta.
The meeting was part of his government's policy to move forward internationally. "We cannot live in isolation. Forward-looking countries perceive changes in advance. They formulate their policies according to the changing world scenario," he added, praising Israel's pullout from Gaza as a "positive step".
Pakistan, the first Muslim nation to build a nuclear weapon, has been a staunch supporter of demands for a Palestinian state and an end to Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, home to 3.8 million Palestinians.
Explaining the event, Pakistan's Dawn newspaper said the decisive factor in Pakistan's decision to engage was the Jewish state's pullout last month from the Gaza Strip after 38 years of occupation. Israel completed evacuating 9,000 settlers from Gaza and the northern West Bank on August 23 under Sharon's plan for "disengagement" from conflict with the Palestinians.
The Istanbul meeting comes just two weeks before Musharraf is due to make a rare address to the American Jewish Congress in New York, to speak about his campaign for moderation in the Muslim world.
The Pakistani strongman has also accepted an invitation to address an interfaith conference this month organized by the Council for World Jewry while he is in New York to attend the UN General Assembly.
"It is learnt that covert contacts between representatives of the Jewish state and Pakistan had been going on for several months through diplomatic and informal channels. However, the decisive factor for the first open political contact between the two countries was the Israeli pullout from Gaza last month, which in Pakistan is viewed as a positive move and has been welcomed by the government," Dawn added.
Relations with Pakistan are important for Israel. Pakistan is one of the most populous Muslim countries, and establishing ties could soften enmity towards the Jewish state in other Muslim countries. Israeli officials also believe that relations with Pakistan could set off a chain reaction in the region, with countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh following suit.
Musharraf, a key US ally in the Indian sub-continent, has been gradually moving toward conciliation with Israel, despite the influence of a powerful Islamic radical party in Pakistan.
Israeli diplomats hope that "such contacts also help strengthen the moderates on the Palestinian side - those who recognize that dialogue and acceptance must always be preferred to hatred, terror and extremism".
But the Palestinian authority said it was "worried" about Pakistan's diplomatic contact with Israel as the Jewish state continues to occupy east Jerusalem and the West Bank.
"It is not good to give Israel gifts before it really implements the peace process, not only in Gaza, but in Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem," Deputy Prime Minister Nabil Shaath told reporters.
In the absence of immediate reaction from main Arab and Muslim capitals, due primarily to the fact that public administrations are closed on Friday in most Muslim nations, the Cairo-based Arab League said that Israel had made "no major concessions to merit such a decision", referring to the Shalom-Kasuri meeting.
A spokesman for the al-Jamaia-Islamiya Muslim organization in Islamabad told al-Jazeera TV that this was a "black day for the Pakistani people" and that they would not support Musharraf in his move to establish diplomatic ties with Israel.
Pakistani's main Islamic opposition party also denounced the country's decision and said it would hang out black flags in a day of protest.
Qazi Hussain Ahmed, leader of the powerful alliance of six Islamic parties that leads the opposition Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, said, "This is a move which is against the interest of Islamic ummah [Muslim community] and reflects the pro-US policies of the present government. It goes against a policy that Pakistan has been pursuing from the very beginning."
But the head of the governing Pakistan Muslim League recently said the Arab world would benefit from Pakistan and Israel establishing relations.
Safa Haeri is a Paris-based Iranian journalist covering the Middle East and Central Asia.