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Western Press Review: Entente On The Subcontinent, Khatami Addresses Davos Amid Protest In Iran, Baku's Reform Efforts

Prague, 22 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Among the topics addressed by press commentary today are Azerbaijan's dubious commitment to liberal reform, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami's "mixed" message to the Davos Economic Forum, and Indian and Pakistani leaders' moves toward a peaceful solution over Kashmir. We also take a look at the ongoing standoff between liberal and conservative leaders in Iran, as dozens of reformist deputies begin a 12th day of a sit-in at parliament to protest the disqualification of over 2,000 liberal candidates from elections next month.


"The Washington Post" columnist Jim Hoagland says recent hopeful moves toward a peaceful solution to the divided region of Kashmir have stemmed from "shrewdness on the Indian side and desperation in Pakistan." Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf "has impressed Indian officials by moving in recent weeks to rein in the interlocking network of terrorists, [intelligence] officials, and nuclear scientists who have made Pakistan a center of regional instability [and] nuclear proliferation." India, for its part, has "inched [its] way steadily toward an accommodation with Pakistan by alternating threatening military moves and visions of mutual economic benefits built on peace."
"Mr. Khatami's mere presence at this annual gathering of 2,200 business and political leaders was an indication that the war in Iraq has altered the status quo in the Middle East."

Pressure from the United States had little to do with recent strides, Hoagland says. The leadership in New Delhi and Islamabad have acted for their own reasons.

He remarks that being the target of recent assassination attempts "that rely on inside knowledge [focuses] the mind in special ways." Two such attacks on Musharraf's life in recent weeks "seem to have convinced him that his most immediate threat does not come from New Delhi. It comes from extremists in or near his own regime." These attacks have made stalling "no longer possible, for Musharraf or the generals whose support he needs to survive the Islamist challenge to his rule."

Hoagland says Musharraf must now "push forward and survive the showdown that has begun in his country." Vajpayee must win re-election "and then satisfy Pakistan's legitimate aspirations in Kashmir. But by taking the first baby steps toward peace in Kashmir, these two leaders have begun a journey that can change the world."


Writing from Davos, Switzerland, Mark Landler of "The New York Times" says Iranian President Mohammad Khatami brought "a robust, if mixed" message of both "hope and defiance" during a press conference on the sidelines of the annual World Economic Forum.

Khatami was ambiguous in speaking about recent events in his own country, calling the escalating struggle between reformist and conservative elements in Iran a "natural process," and indicating his continued willingness to serve his people. But he was "less equivocal" in rejecting U.S. claims that Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons. Khatami said that Iran was a peaceful nation with nothing to hide from weapons inspectors.

Landler says, "All in all, it was a spirited performance from a leader who is a rare figure at such gatherings." Khatami "seemed eager to use the platform of Davos," with its audience of many of the world's economic and political leaders, to send two main messages. He made clear that Iran "is still proceeding on the path to democracy, if at its own pace. And Tehran is ready to engage with the outside world, provided those outsiders treat it with respect."


Baku-based Caucasus analyst Fariz Ismailzade says in recent months, the Azerbaijani Parliament has adopted several crucial reforms that had been stalling for years. However, the leadership's commitment to reform remains questionable, and Ismailzade suggests the legislation could have been part of a hasty attempt to meet certain criteria before the Council meets next week, when it may discuss Baku's progress, among other issues.

"When Azerbaijan became a full member of the multinational body in 2001, it accepted a package of obligations to fulfill in the subsequent three years. These obligations included passing laws to promote free speech, releasing political prisoners, and holding free and fair elections." Ismailzade says since late December 2003, the parliament has duly passed laws on public television, fighting corruption, and public appeals to the constitutional court, as well as ratifying the European Social Charter, which provides for labor and human rights protections. The president, moreover, signed a decree pardoning 164 political prisoners.

But Ismailzade says while these reforms "have pleased some and given hope to others," most members of the opposition and activist groups consider the changes merely "cosmetic, serving only to mislead the international community." While free speech advocates welcomed the law providing for public television, they note it also stipulates the president must approve the station's board of directors. Many political prisoners also remain incarcerated, in violation of the council's stipulations.

Time will determine whether the new laws will really take root in Azerbaijani society, Ismailzade says. But many among the political opposition believe the Council of Europe's security and financial incentives will eventually prove "priceless" spurs to ongoing reform.


Several items in France's "Le Figaro" today take a look at the competing camps in the standoff between Iran's conservative and reformist elements. Several dozen legislators began a 12th day of a sit-in at parliament today, protesting a decision by the hard-line Guardians Council to disqualify over 2,000 of their pro-reform colleagues from running in elections next month.

The French daily says the responsibility of the Guardians Council is essentially two-fold: to authorize candidates for presidential, legislative, and municipal elections, and ensure the correspondence of laws with the tenets of Islam. In other words, says the paper, its mission is to preserve the values of the Islamic republic. Within the complex structure of Iranian politics, the Guardians Council remains quite close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The police, army, and the judiciary are also known for their conservative leanings.

Opposite these forces stands reformist President Mohammad Khatami and his supporters in parliament, who embody the liberalizing tendencies of the regime today. But the paper says over the past four years, the Guardians Council has managed to position itself as an effective obstacle to any reforms Iran's liberal elements have tried to push through. In spite of widespread popular support for many of their measures, the reformists have been effectively stymied by the regime's hard-line elements.


"The Wall Street Journal's" Marc Champion and Alan Friedman discuss Iranian President Mohammad Khatami's statements at a press conference yesterday at the Davos Economic Forum in Switzerland. Khatami notably criticized Washington's war on terror for its failures, citing the inability to find Osama bin Laden, the lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and the U.S.-led coalition's reluctance to hold direct elections in Iraq.

The authors say, "Mr. Khatami's mere presence at this annual gathering of 2,200 business and political leaders was an indication that the war in Iraq has altered the status quo in the Middle East." But Khatami's statements "plunged him into a fierce debate" about whether the war in Iraq has improved the situation in the region.

British Foreign Minister Jack Straw "found himself acting as the war's chief defender in Davos. [He] cited Iran's decision to allow intrusive inspections of its nuclear program, Libya's decision to renounce its efforts to build weapons of mass destruction, and the removal of Saddam Hussein as evidence" that the war had helped stem the proliferation of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. Khatami insisted that U.S. actions had nothing to do with Tehran's decision to allow for more intrusive weapons inspections, however.

Straw also came under fire over a perceived lack of progress on establishing a working democracy in Iraq that could serve as a model for the region. Mahnaz Ispahani of the Council on Foreign Relations argued that the "domino effect" theory of spreading democracy showed no signs of bearing fruit. Recent developments in Iran and Pakistan, he noted, even seemed to be heading in the opposite direction.