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Western Press Review: Focus On Iranian Reformists' Victory

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 21 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Much of Western press commentary is focusing on what many call the "stunning" victory of Iran's reformists in Friday's parliamentary elections. Final results are not due until later this week, but so far moderates have won 137 of the Majlis' 290 seats, with right-wing conservatives far behind with only 44 seats. Virtually all commentators agree this is a positive development, but there are varying assessments of its significance.

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: The pressure of expectations is now far greater than before

An editorial in Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung says that Iran's election results "could not have been clearer." The paper writes: "Iranians have strikingly shown that they want to modernize the political-social system established in the Islamic Republic more than 20 years ago. They want contact with the world, they want a better life ... And they persist in believing that [moderate] President [Mohammed] Khatami is in the most likely position to realize their hopes."

The paper believes that, in its words, "the pressure of expectations [on Khatami is] now far greater than before." It continues: "The alibi [of being faced with a strong opposition] will be less credible with reformers moving into parliament in the strong majority indicated by the partial election results."

The paper warns about disappointing Iranian voters' hopes: "The Iranian population is growing fast and unemployment remains high -- a problem that is not limited to the Khatami regime ... But the Iranians have an additional burden. Elsewhere, the regime does not tell its citizens how they should live. But it can only make moral demands if it offers a minimum of security and well-being. If the newly awakened hopes meet with disappointment, a very dangerous situation could develop."

TRIBUNE DE GENEVE: Democracy has also brought us an unhoped-for sign of vitality

The Swiss daily Tribune de Geneve writes of "a breath of fresh air from Iran." In a signed editorial, Mathieu van Bercham says: "At the same time that it has given birth to a nauseating coalition in Austria and is getting ready [in Russia] to legitimize a former secret agent who is despotic to his very core, democracy has also brought us an unhoped-for sign of vitality [in Iran ]."

The paper finds "most intriguing" about the reformists' victory the fact that, in its words, "this democratic success has occurred in an Islamic nation ... a state, moreover, held in contempt by [the U.S.] and regarded with suspicion elsewhere the West." It adds: "That [Iran's] Islamic revolution has been able -- 20 years after its launching -- to produce this kind of opening, which calls into questions its very bases, is a cause for great wonderment."

The editorial concludes by evoking a "dream of the reconciliation between moderate Islamism and democracy. ... This sort of union," it writes, "could give a second breath to [republican values] demoralized -- at the turn of the century -- by [Austria's Wolfgang] Schuessel, [Russia's Vladimir] Putin" and others.

TIMES: This election is potentially cause for celebration

Two British dailies also comment on the Iranian election. Under the heading "Great Expectations," the Times writes: "With reformists in Iran heading for victory in parliamentary elections, a policy deadlock with backward-looking theocrats has at last been broken. ...The way is clearing for [President Khatami] to achieve the political, economic and religious liberalization that he has called for since being elected in 1997." But, the paper adds, "one question remains: How far will Mr. Khatami actually dare to venture down this path?"

The Times warns that Khatami, in its words, "may not be quite as radical a reformer as the West wants to believe him." It adds: "While he undoubtedly wants to change Iran's image as a fundamentalist nation and end its international isolation, like nearly every politician in Iran he also wants to work under an Islamic system."

Summing up, the paper says: "More internal turmoil lies ahead. Nevertheless, if Mr. Khatami can keep control of strengthening pro-reform forces and guide Iran towards deeper democracy, this election, with its implication that Iran is genuinely eager to return to the family of nations, is potentially cause for celebration not only at home but also in the West."

DAILY TELEGRAPH: The Islamic republic has lost none of its ability to sow division among its enemies

A commentator in the Daily Telegraph is less optimistic about Iran's democratic prospects. The paper's diplomatic editor, Christopher Lockwood, says: "The electoral success of Iran's moderates will not make it easier for the West to decide how to deal with a state that is still part-pariah [because of its] conservative religious establishment, innately hostile to the West and its values, [which] still retains great power."

Lockwood notes that "Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, [Iran's] spiritual leader, has over-arching responsibility for setting the basic lines of foreign policy. He is known to favor only the most cautious engagement with the West, and none with [the U.S.]. Iran arms and pays Hezbollah, the fundamentalist group fighting Israel in South Lebanon, and [Khamenei] has often called for the State of Israel to be eliminated."

The commentator adds: "According to American intelligence sources, Mr. Khamenei is responsible for Iranian efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction. All this," he says, "makes it hard for the West to know how to treat Iran and leads to big differences of opinion within its ranks."

He concludes: "With the Middle East peace moves in serious trouble and Iran's attitude and rhetoric far from helpful, the Islamic republic has lost none of its ability to sow division among its enemies."

IRISH TIMES: Reform in Iran is now certain

The Irish Times says that the reformist candidates' success poses what it calls "a new challenge for President Khatami's undoubted political skills," saying: "The task of reforming politics and redistributing power will not be easy." The paper spells out the challenges: "Traditionalist, confessional and extra-parliamentary forces control many of the power structures throughout the country. Most notably, the clerical dominance of the judiciary and the vetoing of laws considered to be in conflict with religious precepts may make it difficult for Mr. Khatami to move as quickly as many would wish."

Still, the paper continues, "reform in Iran is now certain, only the pace of its introduction is open to question. ... Those entrenched in power over two decades are not likely instantly to relinquish the authority that has been theirs for so long."

The editorial concludes: "While a measure of internal instability seems inevitable on Iran's path away from fundamentalist confessional governance, opportunities abound at the international level. ... Better relations with other Muslim states within the region ... will be strengthened by the election result. A return to the days when Iran wished to export its revolution to neighboring countries now seems impossible. It is even conceivable that at some time in the future there will be a resumption of diplomatic relations with the U.S."

NEW YORK TIMES: The people now expect a more enlightened government

Two U.S. national dailies assess the importance of the Iranian moderates' success. The New York Times says: "The message of these elections is that an overwhelming majority of Iranians are weary of fundamentalist rule, an ailing economy and an abrasive foreign policy that has left Iran lagging behind at a time of expanding prosperity and freedom around the world."

The editorial adds: "Despite rising oil prices, unemployment and poverty are pressing problem in Iran. Many foreign investors remain skittish, while much domestic industry is controlled by profligate and sometimes corrupt religious foundations. Under these circumstances, job growth has not been able to keep up with Iran's rapidly expanding population."

The paper also says: "Iran's clerical leaders have shown themselves to be sophisticated politicians. In recent years they have permitted relatively free elections and have acknowledged their political defeats. ... They should have the wisdom to recognize that the Iranian people now expect to see their country governed in a more enlightened way that respects their personal and civil liberties, promotes economic growth and moderates Iran's militant hostility toward the West."

WASHINGTON POST: It is not yet time for softening sanctions

The Washington Post says in its editorial: "Ample opportunity remains for [Iranian] clerical authorities to fiddle with the election results, as they have in the past. But the numbers and high turnout suggest a popular pull toward reform that could conceivably prove strong and persistent enough to swamp the mullahs' efforts."

The paper goes on to say this: "If a parliament with a pro-Khatami majority is actually seated, reformists will urge a more liberal press law and constitutional revisions to curb the power of the supreme religious leader, Ali Khamenei. At the root of these battles is a struggle to decide whether political power proceeds from those who claim to speak for God or from the people's will."

The editorial sums up: "It is not yet time for a softening of [foreign] sanctions [against Iran]. A more politically open Iran will not necessarily become less of an international menace; ending state-sponsored terrorism does not appear high on the priority list of reformers, who are preoccupied with domestic projects."

(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)