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Western Press Review: Assessing Iran and China's Prospects

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 4 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The apparent victory of supporters of Iran's moderate President Mohammed Khatami in important municipal elections last week continues to evoke commentary in the Western -- and especially the U.S. -- press. Today's selection includes a number of differing assessments of prospects for Iran's future. There is also further comment on Communist China's human-rights record and its relations with the U.S. in the wake of the recent visit to Beijing by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

NEW YORK TIMES: Iranians clearly are impatient to transform their country

"The power of democracy is altering Iran," says the New York Times flatly in the lead to its editorial today. The paper writes: "[Unofficial results from last Friday's] voting mirrored the presidential election that swept Khatami to power two years ago. Though conservative clerics remain the paramount rulers of Iran, Iranians clearly are impatient to lift religious repression and transform their country."

The editorial continues: "Washington would benefit greatly from the development of a more moderate and internationally responsible Iran, and should do what it can to encourage change. While continuing to support exchanges by sports teams and cultural groups, the Clinton Administration should begin to ease trade restrictions against Iran in ways that would have the most impact on ordinary Iranians."

The NYT adds: "The White House rightly insists that normal relations cannot be completely restored until Iran stops trying to build nuclear and other unconventional weapons, severs its links with terrorism and accepts peacemaking efforts between Israeli and Arab leaders. Iran has distanced itself from terror and now concedes the Palestinians' right to make peace with Israel. If further steps can be taken, the Mideast will be a safer place and Iran may resume its traditional role as a regional counterweight to Iraq."

WASHINGTON POST: Only the lower ramparts of government appear to be open to democratic procedure

The Washington Post, however, is not quite as sanguine about Iran's future. In its editorial, the paper carefully notes that "the candidates identified with reform in Iran seem to have prevailed in the first local elections since the Islamic revolution in 1979.... To some, this is the time to end diplomatic hesitation and, by lifting the [current U.S.] embargo, to back Iran's reformers in their effort to join the West. But," the editorial asks, "is it so simple as that?"

For the WP, "There appears to be a certain aspect of a good guy, bad guy morality tale to the conventional view of Iranian politics." The paper acknowledges that "there is no denying the bravery of the 'reformers,' especially of the street demonstrators, including many women, an abused class in Iran. President Khatami has his own [special] place among the reformers."

But, it adds, "only the lower ramparts of government appear to be open to democratic procedure. The upper ramparts -- including parliament, the intelligence and judicial systems, the foreign-policy apparatus and the security and defense establishments -- apparently stay under the traditional-clerical control of the man called supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei."

The editorial concludes: "[Western] Europe is impatient to get back to business as usual with Iran. Many Europeans dismiss American reluctance to jump into the fast lane of normalization as an emotional over-reaction to Iran's kidnapping of American diplomats in 1979. Perhaps there is a bit of a kidnapping factor in the American attitude. But there is also concern for the harsh Iranian policies that remain in place two decades later."

WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE: Iran is still a long way from being a real democracy

The Wall Street Journal Europe is even more skeptical about Iran's democratic prospects. The paper's editorial says that it "is clear...that the Iranian people want change, including a thaw in relations with the West, particularly the U.S. What isn't clear at all," the paper adds, "is whether or not they'll get it."

According to the WSJ, "Mr. Khatami and his allies are hardly liberal democrats, and they are involved in a vicious power struggle with the reactionary mullahs who wield real power in the country. In the short run, at least, the mullahs appear to be winning." The editorial goes on: "Iran is still a long way from being a real democracy, and the political opening we see now could be crushed as quickly and brutally as the Prague Spring [in 1968]."

The paper notes that "the Iranian constitution gives the supreme leader [Ayatollah Khamenei] the power to remove the president at will, though it is looking more and more as if Mr. Khatami has enough support that such a move could spark great civil unrest....[But] the mullahs will not be dislodged easily," the paper concludes. That's why it believes that "Western [especially European] democracies should be making it more clear that they support the obvious aspirations of the Iranian people rather than clinging to policies that have had little effect in loosening the power of the country's bigoted and murderous theocrats."

LOS ANGELES TIMES: Iran and Turkey are the two most important states in the region

In a commentary for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, columnist William Pfaff couples Iran with Turkey in asserting that "the future of the Near and Middle East will be influenced more by [these two countries] than anything done by the 'rogue states' and private-enterprise terrorists who preoccupy [the U.S. Government].... Events in Iran and Turkey," he writes further, "are significant because these are the two most important states in the region. Both," he adds, "have recently experienced major and constructive internal changes."

Pfaff continues: "Turkey's capture of the Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan unexpectedly opened prospects for an end to the civil struggle that has poisoned Turkish democracy, political stability and international standing. A serious effort at national reconciliation is now under way."

In Iran, Pfaff says the municipal elections "have produced an unexpectedly broad victory for reformist forces..."

The commentary allows that "these are inconclusive but [nonetheless] important developments. In the medium term," Pfaff asserts, "it is reasonable to believe that Iran will break out of its cultural isolation from the modern world.... [The country is already] enlarging limited political freedoms and establishing the institutions of civil society under the overall control of a clerical establishment that itself is divided into liberal and conservative camps."

LOS ANGELES TIMES: Societies are likely to be stable when citizens have an outlet to express their political views

Three comments on China express varying degrees of doubt about that huge country's democratic potential. In an editorial, the Los Angeles Times notes that, "on the eve of [Secretary] Albright's trip, the State Department issued a strongly worded report detailing continued human-rights abuses in China. Later this month, in Geneva, the U.S. will again have the chance to support a UN Human Rights Commission resolution condemning those abuses. Not to do so, [as the U.S. last year failed to do,]" the paper asserts, "would be morally irresponsible."

The editorial continues: "China continues to give its patented response to American criticisms: How it treats its own people is not the business of outsiders. Besides, Chinese officials say, the current unsettled economic situation inherently threatens to fuel social unrest. Does the U.S. really want to encourage instability in China by making an issue of the regime's intolerance of dissent?"

The paper concludes that "Albright's correct response was that 'societies are more, not less, likely to be stable when citizens have an outlet to express their political views.' But China's aging leaders," the LAT adds, "aren't interested in tolerating political diversity, only in retaining their monopoly on power."

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: The U.S. will not apologize for telling the truth

In Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung yesterday, Editorial-Page Director Josef Joffe also praised Albright's candid public talk in Beijing last week. He wrote in a commentary: "In view of [the] long list of pragmatic political issues [preoccupying the two countries], it was quite courageous of Albright to say, at the end of her visit, 'The U.S. will not apologize for telling the truth.' Perhaps," Joffe added, "you have to be a true world power to say things like that. For there are few of its own wishes which Beijing can fulfill without U.S. support, let alone in opposition to America."

The commentary also says: "German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer will fare the same as Madeleine Albright if he ever visits Beijing. He will have to say the same kind of things as the U.S. Secretary of State. He will have to defend democrats and dissidents and remind his hosts that things like the founding of political parties are [as Albright stated] 'neither a threat nor a crime,' but guaranteed by the [UN's] Universal Declaration on Human Rights."

"And then," the commentary continues, "Fischer -- or any other Westerner -- will, like Albright, have to remember that foreign policy also involves interests. For example, the Americans want the Chinese to treat the export of missiles and nuclear technology a little more carefully. Presumably," he adds, "they would also be grateful if the Chinese were to refrain from military adventures in the Taiwan Strait. It would be nice, too, if China were at least to abstain rather than exercise its veto in the UN Security Council when it comes to sending troops to Kosovo or Iraq."

NEWSDAY: Repression may become a catalyst encouraging political dissent

Finally, a commentary in the U.S. [New York State] daily Newsday today by analyst Susan Tillou takes China's Communist leadership to task for what she calls its "dealing with dissent with the same old [automatic] response."

She writes: "The Chinese Communist Party has attempted to stem the civil unrest the only way it knows how -- through knee-jerk repression. The party's latest reversal on political freedoms has not only fueled the fire of internal political movements, but it has once again begun to evoke international concern, particularly in the U.S. Unless the party undertakes a re-evaluation of its strategy for curbing unrest, its tendency to repress these movements may become a catalyst encouraging the very political dissent it seeks to quell."

Tillou also discusses what she calls Albright's "war of words over human rights with Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan" in Beijing. The analyst believes that it was U.S. "domestic pressure [that] forced Albright to try to reassert the Clinton Administration's [old] stance on human rights -- even at the cost of impeding progress on Albright's official mission to pave the way for Premier Zhu Rongji's visit to the U.S. next month. But," she adds, "international calls for action have traditionally fallen on deaf ears [in Beijing], as the party sees international expression of concern over human rights as a direct interference with its internal affairs."