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Western Press Review: Iran's Conservatives Poised For Victory, U.S. Public Diplomacy, And The UN Role In Iraq

Prague, 23 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Iran's parliamentary elections last week (20 February), in which conservative forces wrestled control of the legislature away from reformists, is much debated in the worldwide press today. Several dailies say the ballot was, in effect, a coup, after the country's hard-line mullahs disqualified thousands of reformist candidates from standing, including 87 serving parliamentarians. We also take a look at new U.S. attempts to improve its image abroad and the UN's role in Iraq, among other issues.


Following their victory in parliamentary elections last week (20 February), commentator Robyn Dixon says Iran's conservative clerics have rushed to reassure Iranians that there will be no "drastic" restrictions to individual freedoms, that economic and other reforms will continue, and that rapprochement with the West will move forward. But Dixon says hard-line elements are themselves divided over "what direction to take the Islamic republic."

Writing in the "Los Angeles Times," she says, "Signs of a hard-line crackdown emerged in recent days: the closure of two reformist newspapers, the blocking of reformist Internet sites just before the election, the closure of an office belonging to the main pro-reform party and the issuing of court summonses to more than a dozen student activists."

But "[after] years of political infighting, war and revolution, Iranians crave a tranquil life," says Dixon. Conservatives accuse reformists "of stirring up social tension for little or no gain. The conservatives, however, are unlikely to deliver the calm they have promised voters because of conflict in their own ranks."

It will be difficult for the newly empowered but divided hard-liners to satisfy Iran's overwhelmingly youthful population, which is disenchanted with "reformists unable to deliver social change at a quicker pace." Reformists and conservatives both know that "if Iran's youths took to the streets en masse, they could undo any regime."

Dixon says, "as long as Iran's young people remain alienated and unemployment remains high, the potential for civil strife exists. Student leaders and reformists warn that the spark that could ignite demonstrations or riots could be something small and unpredictable."


A "Financial Times" editorial says the result of Iran's election "was settled weeks ago," when Iran's conservative Guardians Council disqualified thousands of reformist candidates from standing in parliamentary elections. Nearly 1,200 other candidates resigned in protest, and the "FT" says the Iranian reform movement has now "been all but erased at the stroke of a pen."

The conservative mullah's repossession of parliament has "[ended] what turned out to be a delusion that the Islamic republic could be reformed from within." But the paper says the closure of two reformist newspapers ahead of the poll "will not stop theocratic rule from being exposed in all its nakedness, now that the theocrats themselves have torn away the last remaining reformist veil."


Britain's "The Independent" also says the results of Iran's parliamentary election were "a foregone conclusion."

Washington responded by condemning the ballot for not being "consistent with international norms." With turnout at less than 50 percent "and a severely restricted range of candidates," it is "difficult to view the results as anything other than a distorted reflection of popular opinion."

But the paper says thus dismissing the results is a dangerous path, for Iran "is poised at a critical juncture, and the confrontational approach adopted by the [U.S.] administration is the worst possible tactic. In many ways it has battened down the more liberal hatches pursued over the past seven years by the reforming President Mohammad Khatami, who has pushed for greater freedom of speech and a loosening of Islamic restrictions." But instead of "pushing the Iranian leadership into a corner, the more engaged approach which Britain and the EU has adopted is the only sensible way forward."


A contribution to the "International Herald Tribune" by political analyst and lecturer Marwan Bishara discusses America's reinvigorated attempts at public diplomacy in light of the launch of a new U.S.-funded television station in the Middle East, Al Hurra.

But Bishara says Washington's "aggressive" campaign to improve America's image in the Middle East "is failing to win Arab hearts and minds. No matter how slick the product," he says, "actions speak louder than words." And people "will not trust the message if they do not trust the messenger." The rationale for Al Hurra is based on two mistaken assumptions. First, that "satellite networks are responsible for the anti-Americanism in the Arab world, and that once America is more clearly heard, it will be more appreciated."

Arab networks themselves "are still in their professional infancy," Bishara says. But their "daily struggle to report the news objectively in spite of domestic and regional pressures is the best means of establishing and strengthening a democratic process in their countries. An American propaganda channel, on the other hand, will be democratically counterproductive and will fail to convince watchers of the popular homegrown networks."

He says once Arabs see Washington's new public diplomacy push "for what it is, an extension of its war efforts in the Middle East, Al Hurra will fail the credibility test."

To really improve its image in the Mideast, "Washington needs policy reform, not improvements in media coverage. Unfavorable opinion of the United States in the Arab world does not exist because people are blind to its values, but rather because they see through the Bush administration's arrogant policy towards them."


Jeff Jacoby of "The Boston Globe" says those who should be most vocal in their condemnation of Islamic extremists and promoters of violence in the name of Islam should be "the millions of moderate Muslims in America, Canada, and Europe. The image of Islam in the West would be greatly enhanced if more of them would speak out against the bigotry and brutality of the militants and forcefully advocate democracy and pluralism in the Middle East."

But Jacoby says the vast majority of Muslims living abroad "are reluctant to do so. Some say nothing out of a misplaced sense of loyalty; others are afraid of being ostracized if they rock the communal boat."

But this is "[all] the more reason, then, to applaud those outspoken moderate Muslims who do lift their voices against the hatred and violence of the extremists."

The millions of non-Muslims around the world "can help the cause of reform and moderation by promoting and encouraging the moderates, and by repudiating the extremists they are brave enough to challenge." But ultimately, he says, "only Muslims can decide whether Islam's future lies with the militants or with the moderates."


A "New York Times" editorial today says former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein "was a terrible dictator who caused great misery to his people." And yet it would be "no great deliverance" if Iraq were to become "a splintering nation engulfed in bitter civil wars."

The paper says, "the best -- perhaps the only -- chance for success depends on the United Nations. Fortunately, the White House is finally showing some signs of reconciling itself to reality." Establishing a lasting security in Iraq after a legacy of tyranny will require "a guiding hand that has international legitimacy and the cooperation of a broad range of allies."

Iraqis today "are torn between impatience to end the foreign military occupation and fear that a panicky American administration might abruptly abandon their country to civil war, anarchy or a new dictatorship." The 30 June deadline for transferring power to an Iraqi administration "looks increasingly dubious," says the paper. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan agrees that there is not enough time to organize direct elections before the scheduled transfer. But handing power "to an unelected government could exacerbate internal tensions in Iraq and discourage other nations from recognizing the new Iraqi authorities as legitimate."

The paper says it is "heartening" to see the U.S. administration turn to the UN for aid in transferring power back to Iraqis. "Parallel efforts are quietly under way to assuage the feelings of major European allies Washington dismissed and insulted a year ago, but now badly needs."

"The New York Times" says it hopes all this "represents a unified administration policy and will not be undermined by ideologues" in Washington.


Writing in France’s "Le Figaro," Delphine Minoui says the conservative victory in Iranian elections came as no surprise. She says a new generation of conservatives has ascended to power, confirming the end of political and social liberalization.

Iran's hard-line mullahs already controlled the Justice Ministry, the army, and the Guardians Council. Now that they also control parliament, the conservatives can effectively put an end to any liberalizations proposed by reformist President Mohammad Khatami. The mullahs are relieved that voter participation hovered at near 50 percent, despite reformist calls for a boycott. But Minoui reminds us that the ballots that brought the reformers to power galvanized almost 70 percent of the population to turn up at the polls.

The conservatives themselves are far from comprising a uniform group, she says. On one side are the ultraradicals and on the other side the pragmatists, which support development and engagement with Western powers. And it is still too early to say which camp will wield the most power in the new conservative-dominated legislature.


Writing in "The Washington Post," Masha Lipman says that in today's Russia, "loyalty to the Kremlin -- or at least the demonstration of it – comes first." And if you are successful in business, "you must try twice as hard to prove your allegiance."

Since the detention of former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii on fraud charges, which many observers believe to be politically motivated, Lipman says, "Russia's top capitalists have fallen all over themselves vowing not to meddle in politics or engage in tax scheming. The expanding prosecution of Khodorkovsky and his colleagues gives the Russian rich no opportunity to relax; it works as a menacing reminder that everyone is under suspicion and no one should feel secure."

Khodorkovskii, who had indicated that he might be interested in entering politics, made the mistake of demonstrating his independence, Lipman says. And that is "one crime the Kremlin won't tolerate." His $100 million gift to the Russian State University for the Humanities "was meant to be a contribution to Russia's future. High-quality liberal education, training schoolteachers in computer skills, instructing provincial journalists to understand the intricacies of modern economies -- all of which Khodorkovsky supported, along with liberal political parties -- imply a vision of Russia as a modernized, open, advanced country."

But in the Russia of President Vladimir Putin, "citizens are encouraged [to] seek reassurance in the country's historical greatness. After all, that's much easier than facing the present and the future -- and assuming responsibility for what needs to be done to close the gap separating Russia from the developed world."