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Western Press Review: U.S. Intelligence Failures, Political Crisis In Iran, And U.S.-Russian Relations

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 2 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Much media analysis today focuses on the lingering questions surrounding Iraq's prewar weapons capabilities. U.S. President George W. Bush is now expected to call for an independent investigation into possible intelligence failures ahead of the war.

Other items in today's press discuss the resignation (1 February) of one-third of Iran's parliament in protest over the disqualification of thousands of reformist deputies from standing in elections later this month. Following the resignations, parliamentarians continued their sit-in, which is now entering its fourth week. We also take a look at shifts in U.S.-Russian relations in light of mounting concerns that the Kremlin is pursuing increasingly authoritarian policies.

THE WASHINGTON POST:

In a contribution to "The Washington Post," former U.S. national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski says whether or how the U.S. leadership "should be held accountable for having inaccurately asserted, at war's outset, that Iraq was armed with weapons of mass destruction is ultimately a matter for the politicians to debate and the electorate to resolve."

But two things are certain, he says. "U.S. credibility worldwide has been badly hurt by the WMD [weapons of mass destruction] affair, and U.S. intelligence capabilities have been exposed as woefully inadequate."

Brzezinski says, "It is a serious matter when the world's No. 1 superpower undertakes a war claiming a casus belli that turns out to have been false." And the first line of defense, he says, is "reliable and internationally credible U.S. intelligence." He writes: "The United States, we now know, was uninformed not only about the level of Iraqi military capabilities but also about Iraqi military and political planning."

There is "no excuse for the inadequacy of intelligence that provided the background for the decision-making and the articulation of U.S. policy," Brzezinski says. But the usual high-level review of the intelligence failures by a commission would be an inadequate response. Ignoring the problem "would be even worse." He says: "A globally preponderant power, if blind, can only lash out when it senses danger. America's leadership in the world calls for something better than that."

THE NEW YORK TIMES:

Writing in "The New York Times," Nazila Fathi says the resignation yesterday of one-third of Iran's parliament threatens "to plunge Iran's political system into chaos." The deputies resigned in protest of the disqualification of more than 2,000 candidates from standing in legislative elections on 20 February.

In what Fathi calls "an emotional statement" broadcast live by Iranian radio, the resigning deputies accused the unelected hard-line mullahs "of seeking to impose a religious dictatorship like that of the Taliban," which ruled for years in neighboring Afghanistan.

The conservative Guardians Council has rejected calls from both the reformist-controlled Interior Ministry and Iran's supreme leader to reinstate the candidates.

Fathi says the resignations were "typical of the brinkmanship that marks Iranian politics, to try to get the hard-liners to back down three weeks before a crucial election that will determine the future of the reform movement in Iran." But the move is also "likely to intensify the fight between reformers and their hard-line opponents."

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE:

Writing in "The Wall Street Journal Europe," Farnaz Fassihi says the decision to bar more than 2,000 candidates from taking part in parliamentary elections later this month (20 February) was the Guardians Council's "most drastic intervention in elections to date."

The move "put under the spotlight the legitimacy of an electoral system that allows a selected few to decide for the masses." Parliament introduced two bills this year aimed at limiting the council's influence over elections. The bills were passed in the reformist-led parliament but vetoed by the Guardians Council. "Hard-liners lost control of Parliament in elections four years ago and repeatedly have thwarted [President Mohammad] Khatami's efforts toward greater democracy and a relaxation of the Islamic social code."

Fassihi notes that the parliamentary crisis unfolded during the 25th anniversary celebrations of Iran's Islamic revolution "and on the very day that its founding father, Ayatollah Rohullah Khomeini, returned to Iran to claim victory."

Several Iranian analysts say at a "critical time for Iran, with the U.S. next door in Iraq, hard-liners are acting to keep their grip on power." In the past several parliamentary and presidential elections, reformist candidates have won more than 74 percent of the vote.

And there are now signs the political crisis will spread, Fassihi says, with student leaders now calling for demonstrations this week (4 February) and a boycott of the elections.

THE WASHINGTON POST:

"The Washington Post's" Jackson Diehl takes a look at shifting attitudes in Washington toward Russian President Vladimir Putin's administration.

Diehl says a "marginal challenger" to Putin in his bid for reelection "got quite a reception" on a visit to Washington last week. Irina Khakamada met with several U.S. senators and senior State Department officials, as well as national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.

Khakamada said one of her aims in entering a presidential race in which Putin is almost certain to win in a landslide is "to educate the outside world about what has happened to democracy in Russia." Another is "to offer a model of someone not afraid to speak up about a ruler's abuse of power."

According to Diehl, Khakamada says the response in Washington "was surprisingly sympathetic -- and suggestive of a partial but real shift of attitude toward Putin." Secretary of State Colin Powell and other U.S. leaders have been slowly upping the pressure on the Kremlin, Diehl says. Powell "chastised the Russian leader at a diplomatic conference in Europe for failing to meet treaty commitments for the withdrawal of troops from Georgia and Moldova. [Last] week, Powell published an article [in] the Russian newspaper 'Izvestia' that took Putin to task on democracy, relations with neighbors and the war in Chechnya."

It is not yet clear whether such "pronouncements will be followed by substantive changes in policy," says Diehl. But U.S. President George W. Bush should be "bold enough to speak the truth about Putin." It might cause some tensions between the White House and the Kremlin, "but it would also offer the world an example."

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE:

Writing in "The Wall Street Journal Europe," Sergei Oznobishchev of the Russia-U.S. Association and the Strategic Assessment Institute says the results of Russia's parliamentary elections last December have raised many questions "among democratically minded Russians about changes in Russia's foreign policy, particularly in regard to the United States."

Oznobishchev offers his own predictions as to what the future will bring for bilateral relations. The new Duma, he says, "can be expected to further Russia's isolation from the international community, particularly as concerns over Chechnya and violations of democratic norms are raised. This position will only exclude Russia from the community of democratic nations, increase tension in relations with other countries, give rise to espionage and suspicions inside Russia and create a deficit of trust in international affairs."

The new parliament "will be more anti-American and anti-Western. The question is, what affect will that have on the Kremlin, the real wielder of power in Russia. President Putin has long recognized the importance of a strong, working relationship with the U.S. His all-but-assured re-election in March will perhaps give him more freedom to pursue a closer partnership and confront the growing nationalist lobby in his own Duma."

But maintaining bilateral contacts "will not be enough." Oznobishchev calls for more "concrete measures," such as "opening trade ties, cooperating on nonproliferation issues and on terrorism [to] bring the two countries closer together."

Putin must also "use his position to communicate to the Russian people and parliament the interests shared by both the U.S. and Russia and the need for cooperation."

LE FIGARO:

Writing in France's "Le Figaro," Delphine Minoui says one by one, Iran's parliamentarians handed their resignations to the president of the parliament yesterday in another act of protest against the intractability of the hard-line Guardians Council.

The parliamentarians' statement of resignation said they felt they could no longer serve in a parliament that is unable to defend the rights of the people and which is not freely chosen by its constituents. The letter also called on the government to postpone elections and confirmed that they would not take part.

These events are a major political crisis for the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is now celebrating 25 years since it was established. In the past four years, reformist deputies have repeatedly run up against the Guardians Council's refusal to sanction liberal reforms. And yet this continues at a time when Iran is increasingly looking to open itself to the West, courting European investment, and even considering a visit by members of the U.S. Congress. While isolating its own reformers, elements in Tehran preach of Iran's desire to open itself to the world.

The conservatives also continue to exhort Iran's citizens to vote, as if nothing were happening. State television and radio -- which have not been covering the crisis in parliament -- are encouraging the population to fulfill its electoral responsibilities by going to the polls later this month, despite the threatened boycott of the election by reformist leaders.
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