Prague, 18 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Opinion and analysis in the English-language press today focus on the 20 February parliamentary elections in Iran and what voter turnout will say about the vulnerability of the country's theocrats, possible changes in the plans for the transfer of sovereignty in Iraq, and a congressional probe into whether the Bush administration exaggerated intelligence to justify its invasion of that country.
Other commentary looks at reaction to the current summit in Berlin of European Union powerhouses France, Germany, and Great Britain; Afghan disarmament ahead of June's scheduled elections; and Russian President Vladimir Putin's trip "back to the USSR."
An editorial in today's "Financial Times" calls the 20 February elections in Iran a "turning point," saying the vote amounts to the formal burial of the country's reform movement.
"The clerical establishment has guaranteed victory for Iran's conservatives by vetoing more than 3,000 reformist candidates," the "FT" writes. "Most reformers, who had dominated the 290-member [parliament], have withdrawn from the election in protest, and turnout is bound to be low."
But the newspaper says that the theocrats may come to rue the day they "greedily seized all the remaining levers of power." Once the reformist curtain is torn down, it says, nothing stands between them and a young and impatient people, hungry for change, and desperate for jobs.
President Mohammad Khatami, the "FT" notes, was elected in 1997 and 2001 in veritable landslides -- he won about 75 percent of the vote in a 90-percent turnout. But in last year's municipal elections, only about 15 percent of voters turned out. The "FT" says that's because Iranians -- disgusted with the war of attrition between hard-liners and reformists -- gave up on the country's institutions and left the field to the conservatives.
The current quiescence of Iranians "is more like sullen alienation from the system as a whole," the "FT" concludes. "[Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei and his friends would be unwise to mistake it for acceptance, much less support."
THE NEW YORK TIMES:
Ali Safavi, president of Near East Policy Research, a consulting and policy analysis firm, contributes a commentary on the elections in Iran to today's "New York Times."
It doesn't take a crystal ball, Safavi writes, to predict that Iran's ruling mullahs will emerge victorious. "Still, no matter how many seats the clerical establishment gains, it will be a Pyrrhic victory," Safavi says. "The regime is going to be far more vulnerable to the growing dissatisfaction of the Iranian public and less legitimate to the rest of the world."
Safavi says Mohammad Khatami's reformist rhetoric, "with its sprinkling of quotations from Voltaire and Tocqueville, has done more to provide cover for European trade with Tehran than to improve the lives of ordinary Iranians. The public hangings, amputations, floggings of women and crackdowns on dissidents continue."
There is only one way to change the situation, Safavi says -- a UN-supervised referendum on regime change. A government survey last year found that 45 percent of respondents wanted the political system totally changed, even if it involved foreign intervention. If nearly half of Iranians were willing to admit this to official pollsters, he notes, the anti-mullah sentiment may be even stronger still.
The so-called reform movement is a spent force, Safavi concludes. "Millions of average Iranians have shown courage in calling for the only thing that can bring about true reform: a referendum for regime change. Washington would do well to embrace that call."
THE WASHINGTON POST:
Columnist Jim Hoagland, writing in today's "Washington Post," praises the "skill and audacity" that led to last week's mission to Iraq by UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.
He says the imperatives that drove U.S. President George W. Bush's interest in the mission were more immediate than repairing relations with the United Nations, though that was seen as a bonus. Brahimi, it was hoped, had the credibility to get through to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who had demanded direct elections before the promised 30 June transfer of sovereignty.
Bush, Hoagland says, is pressing aides to make sure the sovereignty deadline is met, even if other details of the transition plan have to be altered.
One result of Brahimi's trip is already apparent, Hoagland says. U.S. and Iraqi officials acknowledge their plan to use local and regional caucuses to choose an interim legislature is dead.
One option under discussion is expanding, perhaps even doubling, the 25-member Governing Council. This expanded Council would then help Brahimi and a UN staff organize national elections for a constituent assembly and government.
Hoagland calls the Brahimi mission a "diplomatic astonishment." But he says both Bush and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan must be careful not to leave the impression that they are maneuvering to decide Iraq's fate over the heads of its people. He cautions about too much emphasis being placed on diplomacy and too little on the hard work of encouraging and allowing local politics to flourish and Iraqis to choose.
"That process, which began with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, is moving ahead with a speed and force diplomacy cannot contain," Hoagland concludes. "It is time to trust the Iraqis rather than to control them."
INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE:
An editorial in today's "International Herald Tribune" says the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee made the right call last week when it decided to examine whether top administration officials had exaggerated or misused intelligence on Iraq's weapons programs.
"Whatever horrendous errors the intelligence analysts made were surely compounded when President George W. Bush and other senior officials emphasized unlikely worst-case scenarios to win support for the invasion," the "IHT" writes.
"In making its case for war, the Bush administration leapt well beyond the battlefield chemical weapons that Iraq had used in the past and repeatedly raised the specter that Iraqi nuclear and biological weapons might cause truly enormous casualties," the newspaper says. "Top officials warned that Saddam Hussein might use these terrifying weapons against the American homeland."
In making such claims, the "IHT" says the administration went beyond the intelligence consensus in important areas. The Bush administration took unlikely worst-case scenarios and inflated them drastically to justify an immediate invasion without international support.
The Senate committee, it says, will need to find out not just why the intelligence was so wrong, but also the extent to which the administration misused it to stampede the United States into war.
A news analysis in "Eurasia View" by correspondent Abubaker Saddique says controversy is swirling around Afghanistan's upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections. Security problems and a lagging voter registration effort is prompting speculation that the vote, now scheduled for June, may be delayed.
But government representatives in Kabul insist the election will be held according to schedule. Saddique says the Afghan government is planning a massive voter-registration drive in its determination to adhere to the existing timetable.
But Saddique notes that, even if such a voter-registration effort succeeds, Afghanistan's tenuous security environment will continue to threaten the election.
At present, the authority of Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai's government does not extend far beyond Kabul. Warlords, Saddique says, remain in control of many parts of the country, while Taliban insurgents are moving to fill the power vacuum in areas where authority remains contested. Complaints are widespread that international forces are not doing enough to promote security in the provinces.
Weapons handovers carried out under a UN-sponsored program have had only limited success in improving security. Large sections of southern and eastern Afghanistan are inaccessible thanks to Taliban activity. Elsewhere, warlords demonstrate little willingness to diminish their powers, and some militia leaders have set their own conditions for disarmament.
For example, in return for demobilizing his soldiers and surrendering his weapons, Uzbek General Abdul Rashid Dostum demanded that he be named army chief of staff, and that all other militias demobilize first.
Saddique concludes by recalling the recent warning by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who said a failure by member states to restore Afghanistan's crumbling security situation could mean that "we may lose Afghanistan."
Europe, notes Britain's "Guardian" daily in an editorial, has not had a good year.
"The [European Union] was split down the middle by the Iraq war," it writes. "Last autumn, the euro stability pact's rulebook was put in the shredder. Then came the collapse of efforts to forge a European constitution."
The latter failure meant that organizational reforms of the European Commission and presidency could not be set before the 1 May accession of 10 new EU members. So at a meeting in Berlin today, the leaders of Britain, France, and Germany are expected to agree their own joint proposals for managing this enlarged union, in part by creating a hierarchy of commissioners.
"If these proposals are accepted by next month's Dublin summit, a group comprising the EU's 'big three' states will in effect have created an inner core within the commission," "The Guardian" says. "The EU needs stronger leadership. But whether this top-down approach is the best way to provide it is doubtful."
The newspaper says less powerful EU members such as Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands are right to be suspicious of the "trilateralists of Berlin." Their worries are shared by Poland and other new entrants who already have reason to fear that they may be treated as second-class citizens.
This week's public call for "sound budget policies" by six excluded prime ministers was a swipe at France and Germany's disregard of Stability Pact rules. But it was also a broader reminder, the paper concludes, "that the EU has many voices and all have a right to take part in decision-making."
INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE:
An editorial in the "International Herald Tribune" takes a different tack on the Berlin summit.
It acknowledges that today's meeting is guaranteed to get other Europeans grumbling about a "big three" directorate. "The fears are understandable," says the "IHT."
And the newspaper says it was right for six nervous European prime ministers -- from Italy, Spain, Poland, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Estonia -- to issue a joint statement effectively reminding Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac, and Gerhard Schroeder that they have no monopoly on EU policy-making.
"That said," the newspaper says, "there is nothing wrong in a separate get-together of the three, especially after the bitter disputes over Iraq. In fact, it is critical for the heads of Europe's three biggest economies to be talking. What is important is that Blair, Chirac and Schroeder come up with concrete ideas...about getting Europe over some of the toughest times in its history and delivering real benefits to the people of Europe."
Unless Britain, France, and Germany see eye to eye, the "IHT" says, little gets done in the EU. When they do pull together, they can often achieve more, and more quickly, than the "cumbersome bureaucratic beast of Brussels."
The most promising thing about the Berlin meeting is that social and economic reform is high on the agenda, the paper says.
"Settling on the best ways to tackle unemployment, social security and health care, and to improve the business environment, would not only help Europe through its current rough patch," the "IHT" concludes, "but also give Europeans some evidence that the EU is not such a bad thing."
THE MOSCOW TIMES:
An editorial titled "Back to the USSR" in the English-language "Moscow Times" says that, in watching President Vladimir Putin over the past several days, the same thought has come up again and again -- "that we have moved backwards in time."
The newspaper notes Putin's speech last week to a packed auditorium of loyal supporters, in which he spoke with pride of the achievements of the last few years and with optimism for the future. "It was less like a campaign speech than an address to a Communist Party congress," the paper says.
"Now we have Putin attending a major nuclear war game that was heralded as the largest show of force since Soviet times," it continues. "State television [yesterday] gave broad coverage to Putin, dressed in a naval coat and cap, watching the war game from aboard a submarine in the Barents Sea."
What the two main state television channels did not report on their early evening broadcasts was that what was supposed to be the highlight of the show -- the launch of two ballistic missiles from another submarine -- did not happen.
"For all those people who get their news only from state television," "The Moscow Times" says, "the exercises appeared to have been a shining success and Putin a strong leader fulfilling a promise to restore Russia's military might."
The comparisons to Soviet times, it says, "are becoming too numerous to ignore."
But it notes that there is the possibility that Putin has gone too far, "even for Russia's compliant bureaucrats and easily manipulated voters. If the failed launches, which were reported by other media, become an issue, he stands to look a little bit foolish."
Until presidential elections on 14 March, Russians can expect to see Putin in all his guises whenever they turn on state television.
"The only thing we are unlikely to see is him repeating the flight he took to Chechnya in a two-seat fighter jet before the 2000 election," "The Moscow Times" concludes. "The ongoing war in Chechnya is one thing he wants voters to forget."