Accessibility links

Western Press Review: Iran At A Crossroads, Turkmenistan's Show Trials And Are U.S. War Plans A Play For Oil?

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 13 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Among the topics addressed by commentary in the Western media today are the task of rebuilding Iraq in the event of Western-led military action in that country, Iran at a crossroads, getting the U.S. to talk to North Korea, show trials in Turkmenistan, and debating whether U.S. war plans are a play for Iraqi oil.


In a columnist republished in the "International Herald Tribune," "The New York Times" commentator Thomas Friedman discusses the task of rebuilding postwar Iraq after a possible Western-led military campaign. He says if the United States decides to topple the regime in Baghdad, it will also bear "the primary responsibility for rebuilding a country of 23 million people" that may fracture along ethnic or religious divisions much like the former Yugoslavia.

Friedman says he believes that spurring "regime change" in Baghdad is a worthy endeavor, "both for what it could do to liberate Iraqis from a terrible tyranny and to stimulate reform elsewhere in the Arab world." However, he adds that "it is worth doing only if we can do it right. And the only way we can do it right is if we can see it through, which will take years. And the only way America can see it through is if it has the maximum number of allies and UN legitimacy."

The United States does not need a coalition to conduct a military campaign in Iraq, says Friedman. "But the United States does need a broad coalition to rebuild Iraq." He says America needs to reach a compromise with France, Russia, and China, promising to give Iraqi President Saddam Hussein a few more weeks "to comply with the UN disarmament demands." In return, as three of five permanent members of the UN Security Council, they should agree to authorize the use of force if Baghdad fails to comply.


In a contribution to the European edition of "The Wall Street Journal Europe," Johns Hopkins University professor Fouad Ajami says any upcoming military campaign in Iraq would be the third U.S.-led military campaign "at Iran's doorstep."

The first was the 1991 Gulf War, the second the Afghan campaign that began in late 2001. Ajami says that for Iran, in both cases, "a hated Great Power [America] had come and waged devastating war against reviled [neighboring] regimes" in Baghdad and Kabul. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had brought "terrible ruin to Iran," Ajami writes. As for the Taliban in Afghanistan, Ajami says there was no love in Iran "for that cruel band of fanatics."

Ajami predicts that in any future U.S.-led military campaign in Iraq, "Iran's rulers will take the gift of American retribution" against archenemy Iraq, "while staying on the sidelines in anxious dread of what an American victory holds out for [Iran's] clerical regime, unsure of its prospects within its own borders and beyond."

Ajami goes on to say that a "silent revolution is under way in Iran, [the] imploding of the theocratic edifice, the aging of a revolution that has lost the consent of its children." Iran is at a crossroads, he says. One vision offers "a gradual accommodation with the U.S." and rapprochement with Israel. "In the rival vision, Iran would continue to muddle through, alternating terror and diplomacy, hinting at moderation and then pulling back, offering its betrayed people more sterility."


"The Washington Post" today publishes an open letter to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell by columnist Richard Cohen. Cohen professes to be an admirer of Powell, but says the recent release of an audiotape alleged to be from Osama bin Laden belies any connection Powell or the U.S. administration is trying to make between Al-Qaeda and the Iraqi regime. Bin Laden says on the tape that Saddam Hussein's ruling Ba'th Party in Iraq lost its legitimacy a long time ago, and calls those in Baghdad "infidels."

Cohen says this statement would seem to indicate what many analysts "have long maintained: that bin Laden loathes the secular, hedonistic dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. That does not mean, of course, that he hates Hussein more than he hates the United States." But "to use this statement to establish some sort of 'nexus' between bin Laden and Hussein seems to be a reach."

Cohen appeals to Powell to remember the mistakes the U.S. made during the Vietnam War, when the government "lost the confidence" of the American people. "It exaggerated the threat with the alarmist domino theory. It lied about what was happening in the countryside.... [It] secretly expanded the war [with] the bombing of Cambodia." Vietnam "betrayed the American people's trust in their government," says Cohen, warning that dubious claims made by the U.S. administration could have the same baneful effect today.


A commentary in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" today looks at the reaction to the Al-Jazeera television broadcast of an audiotape on 11 February purportedly made by Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden calls on Muslims to defend Iraq in its possible showdown with the United States.

The paper says the American reaction to the tape illustrates "the depressing perfection of how the cogs in the wheels of terror and antiterror fit together." For this latest message serves both the calculations of the Washington hawks as well as bin Laden.

On the one hand, the U.S. needs more justification for a war in Iraq and claims this is proof of Iraq's connection with Al-Qaeda terrorists. On the other hand, bin Laden also wants a U.S.-Iraqi war, because this will rouse the Islamic world against the Americans.

Thus, in bitter irony, both the United States and bin Laden "serve each other's arguments for battle," the commentary concludes.


A commentary in the "Frankfurter Rundschau" looks at Eastern Europe's willingness to participate in a possible U.S.-led war against Iraq. Romania, notably, has been eager to comply with U.S. demands. Moreover, last year Romania was the first country to accede to U.S. demands to exempt American citizens from the International Criminal Court, "even at the expense, it seems, of aggravating the EU," says the commentary. Romania is now also among the 10 European countries which signed a joint declaration on 6 February to support Washington in its policies on Iraq.

The paper says the decision yesterday to send a Romanian military unit of 278 professional soldiers to Iraq once again demonstrates how dependable and eager Romania is to project a positive image of itself as a country worthy of joining NATO.

"Following the experience of the Cold War and the war in the Balkans, Bucharest sees the U.S. as the dominant great power," writes the paper.

"Ties with NATO are regarded as the first important step toward an alignment with the West," the paper continues, adding that the governments in Eastern Europe now habitually "give preference to the mighty rather than treading on the untested ground of those nations in Europe that are opposed to war."


Robert Einhorn, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former secretary of state for nonproliferation, says the U.S. administration has adopted a "curiously fatalistic approach" to North Korea. In his contribution to the "International Herald Tribune," Einhorn says the United States "regards military strikes as too dangerous and too complicated" in light of possible operations in Iraq. Yet it also "refuses to negotiate a new deal for fear of rewarding" Pyongyang's announcement that it is restarting its nuclear program with diplomatic recognition.

But Einhorn says the consequences of North Korea becoming a nuclear power are so bad that Washington "should put Pyongyang's declared willingness to give up nuclear weapons to a rigorous test at the negotiating table." North Korea's nuclear buildup could provoke its neighbors in the region to conclude that their own nuclear-weapons programs are necessary to offset Pyongyang's capabilities, sparking an East Asian arms race.

A negotiated solution would provide a way for the U.S. to ensure Pyongyang's compliance and some method of responding with adverse consequences, such as withholding aid or other benefits. Einhorn says concurrently, the United States would have to "address Pyongyang's energy and food requirements and to consider providing assurances about its security and sovereignty."


In "The Wall Street Journal Europe," Al Hunt says the "inescapable conclusion" of a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing this week on Iraq was that the United States "has prepared brilliantly for the military operation and is frightfully ill-prepared for the more difficult aftermath."

Hunt says that certainly, postwar plans will depend on the war itself. Will it be a quick, intense war or is the "American victory more likely to take several months with heavy Iraqis casualties and infrastructure damage?"

But plans are likely to include "wiping out all of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and Saddam's henchmen, protecting the oil fields, securing the country's borders and starting the process of creating a new political and economic system." Hunt adds that at a minimum, "there will be a short-term crisis dealing with feeding 23 million Iraqis and a potentially massive refugee problem." But he warns, "the notion of America being able to create a post-Saddam political and economic system and pick the people to lead is more than perilous."

How much of the postwar rebuilding will be an international effort, as opposed to a predominately U.S.-led one, is unclear. For both economic and political reasons, Hunt says, "it's far preferable to have the legitimacy of an international force occupying or protecting Iraq for years rather [than] American troops."


"Eurasia View" carries an item by Catherine Fitzpatrick, CIS program director at the International League for Human Rights. Fitzpatrick says in "crushing the alleged perpetrators of an assassination attempt, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov is keeping alive the legacy of Soviet-style televised confessions" and publicized denunciations of opposition figures. The scenes that have been aired on Turkmen television "are reminiscent of the Soviet era's show trials, where broken, pale men -- the fallen members of the political elite -- read haltingly from prepared texts about their alleged horrible crimes against the Motherland."

The crackdown that followed the 25 November assassination attempt, which has included widespread arrests of alleged conspirators -- often members of the political opposition -- and their families, "has effectively crippled organized opposition against Niyazov's authoritarian government."

One of the most prominent of those arrested, former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, was sentenced to life imprisonment. He appeared on television after his arrest full of praise for Niyazov, although he had earlier maintained that he had returned to Turkmenistan to organize street protests against the government. "Some believe Shikhmuradov was tortured and medicated, effectively forcing him to renounce his struggle for freedom" in Turkmenistan, says Fitzpatrick. "Another explanation for his behavior [may] have involved a deliberate recantation in order to draw attention to himself and to protect others" from arrest.


In "The New York Times," Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations says the allegation that the United States is planning to wage war in Iraq in order to lay claim to Iraqi oil reserves does not stand up to an economic analysis. Iraq holds the second-largest of the world's oil reserves, behind those of Saudi Arabia. But Boot points out that President Saddam Hussein would likely be willing to sell the United States all the oil it wants, were it not for the UN sanctions on his country. Washington has actively pushed for the UN resolutions on sanctions, which would seem to indicate that its "primary focus is the threat [Saddam] poses, not the oil he possesses."

Boot says a "possible economic advantage in Iraq would be for American companies to win contracts [to] repair refineries and help operate the oil industry." But while the total value of such work is difficult to determine, a Russian-Iraqi deal signed last year to rebuild oil and other industries was worth $5 billion over five years. Meanwhile, the U.S. administration estimates the costs of waging war in Iraq at between $50 billion and $60 billion. Postwar reconstruction would cost from $20 billion to $100 billion more.

Thus, Boot concludes, if an oil-hungry cabal bent on profit were analyzing the war, "it would have to conclude it wasn't a paying proposition."


Economics professor John Tatom of DePaul University, a former head of country research at UBS in Zurich, agrees. In Britain's "Financial Times," he says: "The estimated cost of war ignores the vast sums required to rebuild Iraq. It does not include servicing the country's debt, which is estimated to be as large as [the] value of reserves. Nor does it account for the fact that the underdeveloped Iraqi economy will remain weak for many years. In short, there is likely to be no oil bonus left for the victor of a military conquest." Tatom says even a 20 to 40 percent rise in Iraq's oil production "would not be enough to make a war to seize Iraq's oil into an economically viable venture."

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