Pakistan's Zardari Cancels Trip To Iran

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has cancelled a planned trip to Iran next Tuesday, prompting speculation that he is responding to rapidly-mounting criticism of his long absence from the country just when his presence is needed the most.

His latest trip out of the country — now almost three weeks long — has taken place just as the Army unleashed a war against Taliban militants in the northern Swat valley, displacing at least 1.5 million people. Zardari's critics have used his absence during the growing security and humanitarian crisis in their attacks on him.

"It is shocking that the person at the helm who should be instilling courage in a despondent nation is not at the scene and is away on foreign jaunts," wrote The Dawn (Pakistan's largest English newspaper) on Friday. "It is but natural to expect a person in a position of leadership, especially holding high office, to have a visible presence among the people in their hour of crisis.

"No captain worth his salt abandons his ship at a time of crisis. He remains on the deck," wrote The Dawn.

Zardari's had planned to attend a tripartite summit in Tehran with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and Afghan president Hamid Karzai, in a step to promote cooperation on improving security conditions in Afghanistan. It would have marked the first meeting between Zardari and Karzai on Iranian soil.

Earlier this month, officials from Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan described the planned meeting as a crucial milestone to bring Afghanistan's two larger neighbors on board together.

Iran and Pakistan have been host to the largest community of Afghan nationals who left their country following the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan by troops from the former Soviet Union.

"The visit (to Tehran) will take place at a later date; we are trying to reschedule new dates," Abdul Basit, Pakistan's foreign ministry spokesman, told CBS News on Friday night. Basit said that Zardari's trip was delayed due to commitments by all three leaders, without elaborating further.

But senior western diplomats said the delay suggests growing pressure on Zardari to reduce his periodic absences from the country. He is expected to return this weekend, almost three weeks after he left on a trip to several countries including Libya, Britain, the United States and France. Zardari was in Washington earlier this month meeting with Karzai and U.S. President Barack Obama.

Zardari's critics say his long absence from the country suggested he was not compelled to personally oversee the war or the relief operations for people fleeing the fighting in Swat valley.

"In a moment of crisis, you would expect the president to be with his people." said one western diplomat who spoke to CBS News on condition of anonymity. "People who criticize Zardari are right in pointing out his absence at this time."

But in Zardari's defense, government officials said the Pakistani president had to travel around the world to win badly-needed economic assistance for his country when it was needed the most.

"The president's foreign visits are in the best interest of Pakistan," said a senior Pakistani government official who asked not to be named. "If he was to stay at home and brutally cut down on his travels, do you think anyone would know the Pakistani story?

"The president's foreign visits have generated lots of goodwill for Pakistan," concluded the official.

By CBS News' Farhan Bokhari reporting from Islamabad