- By Ali Gharib
The Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. hosted a fundraiser at his residence for a neoconservative D.C. think-tank, which solicited donations of $5,000 for invitations to the event. But the think-tank, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), didn’t bother to tell the Pakistani embassy that the event was a fundraiser or that it was sandwiched in the middle of a two-and-a-half day conference on "Countering the Iranian Threat" put on by the group.
"We didn’t know at all that they have done this fundraising," Imran Gardezi, a spokesperson for the Pakistani embassy, told the Middle East Channel. "And neither did they share with us that they would be doing this conference. Very frankly, we didn’t know about this conference."
Though the dinner appeared in the paper and online conference programs, FDD president Cliff May insisted that the two were unrelated: "The dinner was separate from the conference but it coincided with the conference. Why? Because many friends of FDD were in town for the conference," he wrote in an e-mail to the Middle East Channel. May conceded that his staff may have failed to notify the Pakistani embassy that the group was in the middle of hosting the conference.
At the "Washington Forum, "as the conference was called, fellows and scholars from FDD advocated for escalating measures against the Islamic Republic of Iran, ranging from "ratcheting up" sanctions and pressure to U.S. support for regime change and even military strikes against Iran. "Pakistan and Iran are brotherly countries and neighboring countries, brotherly Muslim countries," said Gardezi, citing cooperation between the two countries on a pipeline project. "Anything against Iran is unthinkable for us."
The location of the fundraiser — billed on the program as only "dinner at the residence of one of Washington’s noteworthy Ambassadors" — was a closely guarded secret on the first full day of the event. FDD’s communications director, Judy Mayka, told the Middle East Channel on Wednesday night before the dinner that even she didn’t know where it would be held.
As the conference’s second full day drew to a close, May confirmed that the dinner had been at the Pakistani ambassador’s residence and said that between forty and fifty people were at the dinner. The press attache for the Pakistani embassy put the number between sixty and sixty-five people. Both May and the press attache confirmed that Pakistani Ambassador Husain Haqqani delivered brief remarks at his S Street home in Washington.
But Gardezi, the embassy spokesperson, emphasized that Iran was not an issue during the dinner or Haqqani’s informal greeting. "He made no remarks about iran and there was no mention of Iran," Gardezi said. "Anything prompting against Iran is, for Pakistan, unthinkable."
May disputed that the event was a fundraiser, telling the Middle East Channel that "friends and supporters" were invited, and that there was no "quid-pro-quo" relationship between a $5,000 donation and an invitation. "I invited FDD donors at or above the $5,000 level to the event," May wrote in a follow-up interview by e-mail. "Others friends of FDD were invited — at my discretion. Several FDD staff members were invited as well."
But the online conference schedule, which didn’t name the ambassador in question, left little room for equivocation:
Dinner at the residence of one
of Washington’s noteworthy Ambassadors
(Closed to Media)
(Minimum $5,000 gift required. Contribute here, or for more information on becoming a donor, please contact [e-mail of FDD staffer removed])
The paper version of the schedule handed out to conference participants only said: "Dinner at the residence of one of Washington’s ambassadors — Will leave from the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. See staff for more details."
The Pakistani press attache, Nadeem Hotiana, said the dinner "was in honor of (FDD), but the participants were donors." He added that no donations were collected on the premises.
May described Haqqani as an "old personal friend," a relationship corroborated by Shuja Nawaz, the director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center. "I think the ambassador had a personal relationshp with this group for quite some time," Nawaz said, "but I don’t know if this would reflect official policy. It could well be that this is an unofficial action on his part."
Indeed, while Iran and Pakistan more or less waged a proxy war in Afghanistan in the 1990s — when Iran supported the Northern Alliance until the Pakistani-supported Taliban took power nationally — the countries enjoy good relations. "I would characterize their relations as cordial — not warm at all times, but for the most part cooperative on issues like building a pipeline through Pakistan," said Alireza Nader of the RAND Corporation.
Nawaz of the Atlantic council said the issues between the countries revolve around Jundullah, a Baluchi rebel group on the border that says it fights for Iran’s Sunni minority that Iran alleges seeks refuge in Pakistan, and Iran’s collaboration with Pakistan’s archrival India to build a road from Afghanistan to a port town in Iran that bypasses Pakistan.
"But they’ve always maintained good relations on the surface," said Columbia University professor and Iran expert Gary Sick. "They try to maintain good, business like relations. Each side will allow a certain amount of trouble from the other because they know they need each other."
Which makes it curious that a group hosting a conference very much focused on isolating Iran and pushing escalating measures against the Islamic Republic would take refuge in an embassy of a country — Pakistan — so opposed to such policies. Perhaps that’s why both May and Gardezi, the embassy spokesperson, tried to explain away the events. May said the funding links on the conference program — listed under the dinner, with a minimum to attend — was merely a "reminder" for donors to give more, "routine among think tanks."
For his part, Gardezi chalked up the mix-up to chance: "We Pakistanis and we Muslims are very courteous people," he said, explaining why so few questions were asked. "It was just a coincidence that this happened like this because the Ambassador has his personal friends."