Alarm bells ringing – 21 May 2023

IMAGES of the Iranian and Pakistani leaders inaugurating a power transmission line that will bring 100 megawatts of electricity from across the border to the Balochistan port city of Gwadar, triggered memories half a century old.

It was October 1971, and we had driven into Iran via Afghanistan, after starting our journey in Pakistan, in the midst of a grand countrywide celebration of the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian Empire.

The focus of the official festivities may have been in Persepolis, near the tomb of Cyrus I, but since the Shah, who ruled like any autocrat would, had announced the ‘greatest party on earth’ to mark the occasion, the whole country was bedecked in colourful, officially orchestrated decoration.

Road journeys are very tell-tale as you get a very representative and well-rounded view of the country as against flying into one big developed city and leaving by the same route. I turned 12 on the trip and even my young mind found the disparities staggering.

Pakistan is in a mess because its decadent power structure can’t support the needs of its population.

Tehran could compete in terms of its infrastructure and amenities with any modern city in the developed world. It looked like a properly planned city with beautiful parks and well-paved and well-lit roads and streets and shopping districts with the best French designer labels in abundance. The men and women in upmarket parts of the capital were immaculately dressed in the best and priciest of attires.

Compared to Pakistan of that period, some of the buildings, hotels and restaurants in Tehran were more akin to those in Europe than in our neck of the woods. The capital spoke of immense wealth and privilege. I was invited by the children of my father’s friend Col Barkat Ali, who was then posted as the military attaché at the Pakistan Embassy, to watch Omar Sharif’s The Horsemen.

I can’t recall the name of the road it was on, but the cinema was in an upscale shopping district with well-appointed shops/stores. When the film ended and we came out, suddenly all the lights along the long avenue that passed through the area turned green in one direction.

My hosts told me this meant the Shah was out driving one of the Ferraris in his huge collection, said to be one of the most expensive in the world. Lo and behold, a minute later three Ferraris literally whizzed past in a blur. All I noticed was that the lead car was flame red.

Someone explained later that the Shah loved his high-speed drives in Tehran and on about a 100 kilometres stretch of an especially built motorway that connected the capital to Karaj in the northwest. At that speed, two bodyguards, each in two similarly powered cars, followed him as his usual security detail could not keep pace with him.

A drive an hour either side of Tehran painted an entirely different picture. Towns plunged in darkness provided a stark backdrop to strings of coloured, blinking lights adorning the main road passing through them. All you needed to do was to roll down the car window to hear the generator that powered the lights.

In daylight, stopping at a village for a meal or cup of tea attracted poor rural folk. Scruffy with patches on their well-worn pants and jackets in the bitter cold they’d come over to ask or beg us for cigarettes. Upon realising we were Pakistanis they would ask for K-2 (a coarse, cheap brand).

One didn’t need to be a social scientist to see these disparities would eventually lead to resentment, even rage. This state of play was exacerbated by the Shah’s oppression and the fear of the midnight knock by his secret police Savak which meant you disappeared without a trace.

Since being ousted by an elected progressive government and then being reinstalled on the throne by the CIA/MI6 in 1954 the Shah ruthlessly hunted and hounded leaders and activists of the Left. An untold number disappeared.

The left-wing Tudeh Party’s mobilisation was capitalised on by the mullahs whose leaders, including Ayatollah Khomeini, were exiled in the worst case, and did not meet the same fate as the Left leaders did. Deprivations and inequalities led to the uprising in 1979. The rest we know.

Iranian theological regimes since then have denied fundamental rights and disregarded women’s rights. Western sanctions — ostensibly due to concerns about the country’s nuclear programme, which imposed hardships on the country — enabled the mullahs and provided them a pretext, if at all they needed one, to keep the lid on brutally.

On the other hand, sanctions may have hampered but could not totally block development. From healthcare to education to public transport, including projects such as the Tehran underground, a lot has been accomplished.

Iran has some of the largest oil and gas reserves in the world. And despite sanctions, it has developed an indigenous capacity to build power plants. Since the 1970s, its power production has multiplied more than 15 times.

While its population may be a little more than one-third of Pakistan’s, its power generation is some two and a half times ours with the entire country having access to electricity 24/7. (All these stats are open-sourced).

If the war waged by Saddam Hussein on Iran, and backed by the US in the wake of the Iranian Revolution, was supposed to weaken the Iranian regime, it did the opposite. It enabled the clerics to use more and more of the Shah era’s regular military forces as cannon fodder and degrade them to a point where their role and power in domestic political conflicts became ineffectual.

Pakistan is in a mess because its decadent power structure, carrying every hallmark of elite capture, can’t support the needs and aspirations of its 246 million-plus population, 65 per cent of whom are under 30. Just under 40pc of all Pakistanis live below the poverty line.

If those at the helm don’t consciously and determinedly acknowledge that and change course, events will overtake them and render them irrelevant.

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