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Western Press Review: Iranian Diplomacy, Turkmenistan's 'Eccentric' Leadership, And The Pope Visits Poland

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 20 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Editorials and analyses in the Western press today look at some of the eccentricities of Turkmenistan's leadership, the faltering commitment of U.S. foreign policy, Iranian diplomacy, the Middle East conflict, and Pope John Paul's visit to Poland.

THE WASHINGTON POST:

"The Washington Post's" Fred Hiatt says the U.S. administration must back up its policy statements with effective action and long-term commitment to its stated aims. He says the most "ambitious" policymakers in Washington believe the U.S. is at war -- a war America will not have won "until democracy and development come to the Islamic world." This is part of the "sweeping" vision U.S. President George W. Bush has been outlining since 11 September. But Hiatt asks, "Are Bush and his administration truly committed to this large project?" He says a year after the September attacks, "the evidence is mixed." Toppling the Taliban was the Bush administration's "most significant accomplishment," but the administration's "devotion to a postwar shaping of Afghanistan has been less clear," he says.

Washington's commitment to the long-term success of its policies is less clear in other areas as well, Hiatt observes. He says it is "useful, but not all that difficult to demand democracy in Palestine; far harder to help create the conditions that might make such a vision plausible, including by pressing the Israeli government to do its part." Similarly, he says, it "takes no great courage to demand reform" in hostile nations like Iran; it is "far trickier" to pressure allies such as Saudi Arabia and Kazakhstan to do so, while continuing to negotiate the complexities of bilateral relations with them.

DIE PRESSE:

Austria's "Die Presse" comments on Washington's vehement denial that it assisted Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88. The paper says at the time, there were reports that the U.S. had "encouraged" Iraq to attack Iran. This was a logical measure as far as the U.S. was concerned, since Iran was the more unpredictable state and was clearly expressing its desire to vastly increase its influence. Thus, the U.S. supported the "lesser evil" in that situation, although it was already clear that Iraq's Saddam was a ruthless dictator. "Die Presse" says the U.S. now wants to sweep these events under the carpet, as it is difficult to justify to the world the desire to wage war against a man whom the U.S. initially helped rise to power.

THE TIMES:

Columnist Caitlin Moran contributes a sarcastic commentary on Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov to "The Times" of London. "Fans of nutty dictators with problem childhoods and frustrated artistic leanings have had a ring-a-ding August this year. Turkmenistan's president, Saparmurat Niyazov...[has,] in remarkably little time, risen to be one of Earth's leading exponents of cuckoo."

She says Niyazov has literally rewritten the country's history with his book "Rukhnama," which is used as the main text in the country's schools. He also renamed the months of the year after himself, his dead mother, and a few of his favorite words. He is currently celebrating his recent re-election as president for life by publishing a volume of poetry about his mother.

Moran describes Turkmenistan as a country with melons as its prime crop, no opposition party, 300,000 telephones between 5 million people, and official holidays such as "A Drop of Water Is a Grain of Gold Day."

But in Turkmenistan's defense, Moran says that "being sandwiched between Iran and Afghanistan must be like finding the only spare seat on your train is between, well, Iran and Afghanistan." She says Niyazov may be doing the diplomatic version of a trick at times used when seated between two undesirables on the train -- act crazy until the carriage clears. "Would you invade a country run by a frustrated art student obsessed by melons and his dead mother?" she asks.

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG:

The German "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" describes the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Gaza Strip and Bethlehem as "the first test" of a new understanding between Israel and the Palestinians, and questions whether this event is cause for optimism. The paper says progress is "measured in millimeters" and, hence, this may be regarded as a small success.

On the other hand, as was to be expected, the radical Islamic Hamas movement and Islamic Jihad have vetoed the rapprochement and are threatening a continuation of suicide attacks against Israelis. Even though these organizations claim they are fighting against Israel's occupation they have failed to explain why they have rejected this latest diplomatic initiative by the U.S. and Israel. The commentary explains this by saying that the groups' ultimate goal is "to eliminate Israel."

The paper predicts renewed terrorist activities and says "it would be wise of Israel not to react with a renewed occupation, which would only play into the hands of Hamas." Instead, the commentary says, Israel must give new Interior Minister Abdel Razaq al-Yahya a chance to fulfill his most important task. It is up to the security service that he commands to "nip Palestinian terrorism in the bud." The forthcoming days will constitute a litmus test for al-Yahya, whom both the U.S. and Israel view as a potential successor to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

LE MONDE:

A "Le Monde" editorial today says Pope John Paul II's 18 August speech in Krakow, Poland, clarified his vision of society and also of Europe -- a Europe that he says should transcend nationalism. Nationalism is on the rise in the pope's homeland, while one Pole in three still opposes European Union membership. "Le Monde" says the pope has, for a long time, encouraged his countrymen to courageously join the "European family."

The paper says Poland's history, its culture, and its geographical position all provide reasons for it to join the EU. The pope has now added to this his vision of a Europe "united by its cultural and spiritual roots, as well as the experience of the two totalitarianisms of the 20th century, which would allow Poland -- as a victim of both Nazism and communism -- to play the role of witness and of guarding this memory within the union."

But the paper says, despite Europe's religious inheritance, it should not limit itself to being Christian Europe. The other religions should have their places also, out of respect for Europe's pluralism and secularism, the editorial concludes.

EURASIA VIEW:

In "Eurasia View," Iranian free-lance journalist Ardeshir Moaveni says that as hopes for rapprochement with Washington fade, Iran is pursuing diplomatic initiatives designed to prevent Tehran's strategic isolation. "Iranian leaders," he writes, "have reached out to Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, and Bahrain...[aiming] to heal rifts and thwart what they perceive as a U.S. encirclement effort."

Moaveni notes that King Hamad of Bahrain -- who visited Tehran on 18 August -- issued a joint statement that expressed opposition to any U.S. military action against Iraq. Iran also said it is amenable to reaching a negotiated solution to a territorial dispute involving islands in the Persian Gulf.

Moaveni says President Mohammad Khatami's trip to Afghanistan on 13 August had the similar aim of stabilizing relations with a key neighbor.

Another current focus of Iranian foreign policy is the improvement of ties with Azerbaijan, where Moaveni says an "effective cold war" has marked relations in recent years. Azerbaijan's President Heidar Aliyev visited Iran in May, and Khatami is planning to make a reciprocal trip to Baku in September. Moaveni notes the Iranian president's intelligence chief, Ali Yunessi, made a surprise visit to Baku in July, during which he reportedly indicated that a Baku-Tehran rapprochement was possible.

"Azerbaijani experts have also noted that bilateral relations seem to be warming," Moaveni concludes, "but enthusiasm for rapprochement in Baku appears more restrained than in Tehran."

THE WASHINGTON POST:

An editorial in "The Washington Post" looks at the recent findings of a report by the nonprofit rights-advocacy group Mental Disability Rights International. The group documented serious cases of neglect or abuse at psychiatric hospitals in Kosovo -- institutions that were under the supervision of the United Nations. The paper says American and Scandinavian UN aid workers "failed to remedy the situation, even after being alerted."

The "Post" describes the hospital conditions as "a special kind of hell. Women are raped by male patients while staff watch. Mentally retarded patients sit in enforced idleness, day after day, without treatment or instruction. Reports of abuse are met with threats and retaliation. Filth is everywhere. People who need counseling are instead drugged. People who should be free are locked up for life."

The UN's failure in these cases "reflects a much broader failing of international aid," the paper says. Even well-meaning human rights organizations too often forget about the mentally ill. And when UN officials received the report, they "acknowledged the problems but pleaded inability to influence local officials and poverty."

But the "Post" says the UN mission in Kosovo "enjoyed the absolute power of a viceroy" after the war, and has access to "ample resources." "That no one could bother to provide a locked door between the men's and women's dormitories of Shtime hospital indeed reflects a shortfall, but not of cash."

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE:

In a contribution to "The Wall Street Journal Europe," Kenneth Timmerman of "Insight" magazine discusses the reported death of Abu Nidal in Baghdad. Nidal had been an active Palestinian terrorist for decades. His official cause of death was deemed suicide, but Timmerman says this is not likely.

"So who killed Abu Nidal?" he asks. If it was the Israelis, he says this would show that "Israel's Mossad is back after a series of stunning reverses in recent years and has demonstrated a capability of operating in Baghdad, one of the most hostile environments on Earth. You-know-who is next on the list," Timmerman predicts, in an apparent reference to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

He says there are few intelligence services or terrorist groups "who have demonstrated such a capability." Only Iran's Ministry of Information and Security, which he says "regularly assassinates Iranian dissidents in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq," and the People's Mujahedin organization of Iran (Mujahedin-e Khalq, or MEK), might be capable of this. But Timmerman says neither the Iranians nor the MEK would have a motive for assassinating Nidal.

"That leaves the Iraqi opposition," he suggests. Perhaps they sought to demonstrate to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency that they maintain "active intelligence networks in Baghdad" capable of operating without detection by Saddam Hussein's forces.

THE NEW YORK TIMES:

In "The New York Times," author and professor Jeffrey Goldfarb of the New School University in New York discusses some of his findings while teaching students from Europe, Africa, and Asia. He says certain trends he has observed are "alarming."

Anti-Americanism, he says, "is not just a hysterical judgment popular on the political fringe. It has become a principle of some committed democrats and this, unfortunately, makes a great deal of sense when it comes to the war on terrorism."

Goldfarb cites a student as saying that the U.S. administration's war on terrorism "is being used as a cover by dictators around the world to justify crackdowns on democracy advocates." He continues: "Suddenly the rights of Muslims in the Philippines and Indonesia [are] not important to the Bush administration. Suddenly the strategic resources of Central Asian dictatorships are more important than the lives of human rights activists," who are often jailed in those countries. "Suddenly the defense of the American way of life [seems] to be predicated upon a lack of concern for the democratic rights of people in less advantaged countries."

Goldfarb concludes that during the Cold War, the U.S. "did sometimes let the struggle for democracy play a secondary role in our geopolitical calculations," and today "we are doing this again."

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

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