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Western Press Review: Iran's 'Political Soul,' Voting In Iraq, And Georgia -- A Pawn In The 'Great Game'

Prague, 14 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Among the topics discussed in some of the world's news dailies today are Iran's ongoing parliamentary standoff, a battle for what one paper calls Iran's "political soul"; a growing debate in Iraq over whether to hold direct or to implement a caucus system; the Armenian diaspora's complex relationship with the authorities in Yerevan; and the latest rivalry between Russia and the United States, as both vie for influence with Georgia's new leadership.


An editorial in the London daily says the political crisis now facing Iran is "one of the most serious [since] the monarchy was overthrown in 1979." The paper describes Iran as "fundamentally divided between the conservative clerics [who] control the judiciary, the armed forces and the state media, and reformists who dominate parliament and much of the political sphere." At a time when popular support for the reformists is waning due to their failure to implement meaningful liberal reforms, the paper says the conservative mullahs now "hope to defeat them politically, consolidate their victory in next month's elections, use higher oil prices to create support and give themselves political room to maneuver an alternative route of political and social change under their own control."

If this is truly the strategy being pursued by the hard-liners, "The Times" says, it is up to Iran's reformers "to assert themselves in a very determined fashion over coming days and weeks." Recent parliamentary sit-ins and the threatened resignations by leading officials and government ministers "indicate what is at stake in a confrontation over Iran's political soul."


"The Moscow Times" in an editorial today says the future of Georgia largely depends on President-elect Mikheil Saakashvili's ability to tackle corruption and restore growth to the economy. But it says another major factor will be Georgia's relations with both the United States and former steward Russia. Both countries have been "jockeying for influence" since Saakashvili's January election, and Washington "wasted no time in staking its claim."

But the paper says perhaps the United States "should take it a little easy, knowing how sensitive Russia is to U.S. moves into its backyard."

While the Kremlin has pledged support for preserving Georgia's territorial integrity, its role in "stoking separatism" in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia, Adjaria, and South Ossetia -- and a growing dispute over Russian military bases remaining on Georgian territory -- "speak louder than words." The Moscow daily says perhaps it is time for Russia "to move forward and accept the idea" of an independent Georgian state and work "to make Georgia stable and economically viable instead of weak, divided and dependent."

The paper says Georgia "should not be a battleground between the United States and Russia." Both countries "should think less about their own interests" -- for the United States, the security of its investments in an oil pipeline; in the Russian case, "wounded pride at the loss of an empire" -- and "work together to prevent Georgia from becoming a failed state. In the end, the interests of both would be served."


The "Financial Times" discusses a growing debate in Iraq over what form elections should take. The U.S. administration supports implementing a caucus system, under which influential locals -- many chosen by the occupational authorities -- would select a representational assembly that would then give rise to a transitional administration.

But Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the supreme leader of Iraq's Shi'a majority, insists on direct elections to an assembly that would vote on a provisional government and draft a new constitution ahead of general elections. The paper calls the ayatollah "the most influential man in Iraq," and notes that his view is widely shared in the country.

The "Financial Times" says, "If the liberation of Iraqis -- which Washington now insists was the real goal of the war -- was ever going to mean anything, it had to mean a shift in power towards the downtrodden Shia majority." The challenge is now "how to accomplish this in a way that gives the Sunni Arabs and the Kurds a fair stake in the new Iraq. Only the Iraqis can decide that, and the best way would be through an assembly elected by them."


"Jane's Foreign Report" discusses the future of the European Union in 2004 and some of the common misconceptions plaguing the continent. The report says never before "has the 'European project' been in such danger as it is this year."

The report says the first misconception is the idea that an expanding EU is always a good thing. It says that the "principle of permanent growth justified the EU's existence for a long time," because by expanding, Europe "was proving its vitality." But the report says the reality is that the upcoming May enlargement to include 10 new states has already "overtaxed the 15 older members." The 2004 enlargement "will be so big that the Europe of 15 will be stretched beyond the limits for its decision-making rules and its bureaucratic apparatus to work."

The second misconception is that the nation-state and the EU can peacefully co-exist. "On no other important issue in Europe is there more hypocrisy," says the report. European nations "do not want to answer the big question as to how much national sovereignty they are prepared to surrender" to Brussels.

"Jane's Foreign Report" says a third misconception is that Europe can keep expanding forever -- to Bulgaria, Romania, and, eventually, Turkey. But such promises "have a hollow ring" when considered in the wake of the failed attempt to get current and accession members to agree on a European constitution.

"The 'old Europe' has now gone," says "Jane's Foreign Report." "Nobody has any solid idea of what may replace it, but this year will have to provide some answers."


Writing in the monthly "Le Monde Diplomatique," Vicken Cheterian discusses the Armenian diaspora's contributions to Armenia and relations with the governing national authorities. The Armenian population is 3.8 million, and, the writer says, "there are twice that many in the diaspora, with major concentrations in Russia, the U.S., Georgia, France, Iran and Lebanon." Today, he says, they are once again turning their attention to their country of origin, "supporting economic activities from software companies to high-tech medicine."

Cheterian says that, politically, relations between Armenia and its emigres are complex. Diaspora political parties -- such as the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Tashnaktsoutyun) and the Liberal Democratic party (Ramgavars) -- do have some influence in the country, but Cheterian adds, there are also "major divergences and misunderstandings."

In 1988, as Armenia's popular movement confronted the Soviet Union, "the diaspora parties called for calm, in tacit support for the Soviet authorities." The exiles feared "[a] weakening of the Soviet [power] in Armenia would expose the country" to advances from Turkey, Armenia's traditional rival.

The writer says that, after the Soviet collapse, independent Armenia's first president, Levon Ter-Petrossian, "did not appreciate" the diaspora organizations now located within Armenia; some Armenian Revolutionary Federation party members were even arrested. Relations improved with the election of Robert Kocharian in 1999.

The commentary says that many emigre organizations "actively lobby for the Armenian cause, increasing the importance of this tiny nation internationally." But Cheterian says although "the overall influence of the diaspora is increasing in Armenia, its impact on political, social and economic decision-making remains limited."


An item in France's "Le Figaro" remarks that many observers of recent events in the Caucasus remain convinced that Moscow would merely need to blow on the "live embers" of separatism in Georgia's breakaway republics in order to destabilize the new regime in Tbilisi. It says although the Kremlin has pledged its support for Georgia's territorial integrity, many of Russia's actions do not support this conviction.

"Le Figaro" remarks that the day after the peaceful November coup led by President-elect Mikheil Saakashvili, Moscow enthusiastically welcomed the presidents of Georgia's three separatist republics -- Abkhazia, Adjaria, and South Ossetia -- for talks at the Kremlin. The three regional leaders were eager to show they sought stronger ties with Russia, which has in the past encouraged their ambitions.

"Le Figaro" says this mini summit allowed the Kremlin to make it clear that Georgia would have to take Moscow's regional interests seriously, despite the Westward orientation of the new Saakashvili leadership.