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Western Press Review: Iran's 'Failed Political System,' A 'Third Way' For Iraq, And Talking Turkey

Prague, 20 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Today's controversial parliamentary elections in Iran are the subject of much commentary and analysis in the Western press today. Other editorials and columns look at how the ouster of Saddam Hussein has triggered talk of political reform in the Arab world, a "third way" for Iraq, the UN's oil-for-food "scam" in Iraq, and why Turkey should be given a start date for accession talks to the European Union.


The U.S. newspaper "The Boston Globe," in an editorial titled "Iran's Meaningless Vote," says today's parliamentary elections "shine a bright light on the terminal crisis of a failed political system."

It says the "travesty" of having the 12 members of the hard-line Guardians Council disqualify some 2,500 of 8,200 candidates has not been lost on the electorate. Reformists speak of a parliamentary coup.

"Since a fettered Parliament and the office of the impotent President Mohammad Khatami have been the sole institutions in the hands of reformists," the "Globe" says, "the hard-liners' strong-arm efforts to seize control of these platforms betray a fear of anything that resembles real democracy."

The newspaper calls this the "anxiety of rulers who sense that their days in power are numbered."

Reformists have called for a boycott of the elections, but the "Globe" says the idea of a boycott has led the reformists into an "impasse of paradoxes." Iran's 46 million eligible voters are being asked to believe that democracy requires one not to vote, or that the act of voting identifies the voter as someone who actively rejects democracy.

"The likely result," says the newspaper, "is that pliant conservatives and zealous hard-liners will gain control of Parliament amid unverifiable claims about the effect of the boycott. Voters may stay home in droves, but vote-rigging by the hard-liners will likely enable them to pretend there was a respectable turnout."


Hossein Rassam, an independent political analyst in Tehran, says today's elections herald a new era in the history of the Islamic republic -- one in which the country's ruling institutions face a crisis of legitimacy.

Writing in the London-based "Financial Times," Rassam notes that thousands of former revolutionaries, now reformists, have been barred from running. Iranians, he says, are now realizing that, 25 years later, their victorious revolution has -- in his words -- "devoured its children."

Khatami promised he would hold fair and free elections, but today's poll is neither, says Rassam. Khatami said two years ago he would not compromise over his bills for constitutional powers and free election rights, but he did.

"But the certain defeat of the reformists...will bring an awakening which could ultimately help resolve the paradoxical nature of Iran's beleaguered reform movement," Rassam writes. "What Khatami and his allies in government have probably realized is that one cannot be part of the system and, at the same time, play the role of opposition."

The reformists, he says, will try to fill the widening vacuum created by popular disillusionment and seek fresh channels of communication with the people, while the conservatives will have to deliver more than the reformists.

And with Khatami no longer viewed as a uniting leader of the reformist movement, there will be a split between moderate reformists who want only minute changes and radical reformists who want a total restructuring of power in Iran.

Once united against a common "enemy," Rassam concludes, the conservatives will also fragment. With a membership of traditionalist merchants, uncompromising hard-liners, and pragmatists, they will find it hard to maintain cohesion.


"The Guardian's" David Hirst, also writing from Tehran, asks whether Islam -- in its fundamentalist, political form -- can ever be truly democratic.

"The answer to that question," he says, "has long seemed crucial to the destiny of a movement that has in recent times profoundly shaken the existing order in the Muslim world and beyond. There was never a more important place from which it could come than Iran, where Ayatollah Khomeini's revolution wrought political Islam's first, greatest and still enduring -- if now severely eroded -- triumph."

The answer from what Hirst calls "Islamism's foremost bastion" has become clear -- a resounding no, which he says today's parliamentary elections will merely ratify.

Hirst says today's elections "mark a turning point in a fundamental conflict which beset the republic from the outset. The republic may not have arisen democratically, but it was undoubtedly an expression of overwhelming popular will. However archaic the religious beliefs that inspired it, the republic was to incorporate all the rights and freedoms associated with modern democracy."

But Hirst says the promise was quickly betrayed. The Shi'a clergy's historical role had been to furnish a moral counterweight to temporal power, never to assume that power themselves. But with Khomeini, they did so.

"The ever-prudent and conciliatory Khatami has acquiesced in an electoral sham that he reviles," Hirst concludes. "It is the latest and most drastic in a long line of retreats that have steadily eroded the people's belief in his and the reformists' will to transform the regime on which they all depend. What the conservatives will do with a monopoly of power apparently about to be restored, or what the people's reaction to it will be, remains to be seen."


Columnist Thomas L. Friedman, writing in "The New York Times," notes that one major criticism of the Iraq war is that by invading, the United States actually created more enemies in the Arab-Muslim world.

"What the critics miss, though," Friedman writes, "is that the U.S. ouster of Saddam Hussein has also triggered the first real 'conversation' about political reform in the Arab world in a long, long time.... For this conversation to be translated into broad political change requires a decent political outcome in Iraq. But even without that, something is stirring."

He cites a recent article by Osama al-Ghazali Harb, a top figure at Egypt's most important think tank. The article chastises Arab commentators who argue that the way in which the U.S. captured Hussein was meant to humiliate Arabs. He says that, instead, Arabs should truly feel humiliated about the prevailing political and social conditions in the Arab world that allowed someone like Hussein to assume the presidency.

Friedman notes Abd al-Hamid al-Ansari, the former dean of Qatar University's law school, just published an essay in which he argues against those who say the world is worse off because of the ouster of Hussein.

"Let us imagine the world if America had listened to the French and German logic saying: give the murderers of the Serbs and the Arabs a chance for a diplomatic solution," al-Ansari says. "Would Bosnia, Kuwait, and Iraq be liberated?"

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia's leading English-language newspaper, "Arab News," published an editorial denouncing the murder of Iraqi police recruits by Al-Qaeda sympathizers and "Baathist thugs."

Friedman mentions other such examples and concludes by saying: "Maybe the Iraq war made America new enemies. But it's certainly triggered a new discussion."


In a commentary in "The New York Times," Noah Feldman, who was a senior adviser for constitutional law to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, writes about a "third way" to hand over sovereignty in Iraq.

Rather than establishing a transitional government using some sort of caucus system, as the U.S. proposes, or possibly enlarging the Iraqi Governing Council, Feldman offers a "better solution."

Turn over sovereignty initially, not to a transitional government, he proposes, but to a special Iraqi commission charged primarily with ensuring that elections occur promptly by the first feasible date, probably next spring.

"The difference between a transitional government and government by special commission may seem like a technicality," Feldman says, "but it is more than semantics. The mandate of a commission would be to create an unalterable path toward free and fair elections."

Most importantly, he says, the special commission would be created pursuant to a UN Security Council resolution. The resolution would authorize the commission to exercise sovereignty for the period leading up to elections -- and not beyond.

And while he says it may seem strange for Washington to look to the UN to bail it out, the administration has already headed down this road, relying on UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to shuttle around Iraq and bring the various factions into line.

An electoral commission would buy the United States "precious time and political cover," Feldman concludes. "While eager to take control of their own lives, the Iraqis seem to understand better than we do that the goal is to get democracy right, not to get it fast."


Writing in "The Wall Street Journal Europe," Istanbul correspondent Hugh Pope says the European Union should start readying itself to say "yes" to the biggest question facing it at this year's summit in December -- whether or not to give a date to start negotiations on the accession of its 70-million-strong Muslim neighbor, Turkey.

"European governments already realize that they may be morally obliged to give a positive answer, and, even in private, a few now actively support Turkey's candidacy," Pope says, but notes "that vision is not shared by EU populations. Some 52 percent of people in Germany, for instance, think Turkish EU membership is a bad idea."

Few Europeans, however, are aware of how real the changes in Turkey are, Pope says, adding that a European "yes" will also send a strong message far beyond Turkey's borders.

"After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire," he writes, "the Turkish republic founded in 1923 became a pioneer in reconciling Islam with modernity. In recent years Arabs, Persians and others have been watching closely as Turks have begun to succeed in commerce, to stabilize their economy, to democratize their government and to multiply ties to Europe. At a time of increasing Muslim alienation, they will view the EU's decision on Turkey as a key test of whether the West can ever accept Muslims as real partners."

It is an irony, Pope says, that Turkey -- a member of NATO since 1952 -- is in some respects better integrated with Europe than some new members.

And while acknowledging Turkey's poor human-rights record, Pope says slow improvement has been under way for years, thanks to better-educated policemen, deeper media probing, new EU-prompted laws, and a wealthier society.

"The trend in Turkey," Pope concludes, is "toward convergence with Europe. It is time for the Europeans to extend a helping hand."

An editorial in "The Wall Street Journal Europe" says the UN's oil-for-food program for Iraq "is looking more and more like a gigantic scam. Yet the UN continues to claim the program was an unprecedented feat of humanitarian relief work, and the Security Council members ultimately responsible for the program, including the U.S., would rather keep the details locked in the closet."

Fortunately, the "Journal" says, the Iraqi Governing Council wants to pick the lock.

"We've learned that the Iraqis have appointed auditors KPMG and the London-based international law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer to investigate the many allegations of impropriety surrounding oil-for-food," the "Journal" writes.

It's bad enough that, in the name of respecting Iraqi "sovereignty," oil-for-food used Iraqi resources to throw Hussein a lifeline, sustaining his command economy and palace lifestyle. But the newspaper says it's a global scandal if Hussein also had carte blanche to use the UN program to distribute thousands of millions of dollars in contracts to reward his supporters and apologists abroad.

The UN office administering the program appears to have been happy to look the other way while all of this took place.

The Iraqi Governing Council says it will ask the UN to cooperate with the probe.

"After all that the UN did to sustain Saddam's tyranny over the years," the "Journal" writes, "this is the least UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan can do."
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    Grant Podelco

    Grant Podelco is the editor in chief of RFE/RL's English-language website. He first joined RFE/RL in Prague in 1995 as a senior correspondent after working for many years as a writer and editor for daily newspapers in New York, Oregon, and Texas. He reported from Afghanistan in November 2002 to mark the one-year anniversary of the fall of the Taliban.