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Western Press Review: Iran Waves Olive Branch; Indonesia Fans Flames

Prague, 9 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The Western press continues today to examine the meaning of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami's unprecedented interview Wednesday over Cable News Network. Other Western press commentary focuses on continuing economic problems in Asia, this time with an epicenter in Indonesia.


The Paris daily Le Figaro describes the CNN interview as a "televised warming" between Tehran and Washington "after 20 years of iciness." The newspaper says that the ultimate impact remains to be determined and that much depends now on whether Khatami has the "will and the means" to go beyond "symbolic gestures." Le Figaro said that the United States is uncertain about the "new team" in Iran, and that U.S. President Clinton is wary of having "his fingers burned" as his predecessor, President Ronald Reagan did.


Germany's Die Welt says today that Khatami's "friendly greetings to the American people" constituted an event, but not necessarily a harbinger of political change. Die Welt says that the Iranian president's overture was a first step toward "overcoming reluctance to address these issues" that stand between the United States and Iran.


In The Washington Post, a former U.S. hostage in Iran following the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, protests equating the embassy seizure with CIA manipulations. Bruce Laingen, now president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, comments: "I do not pretend to speak for them, but I would guess that most of my 52 colleagues held hostage with me in Tehran would welcome -- as most assuredly would I -- an American dialogue with Iran (but to equate the CIA intervention in 1953 to help restore the shah to his throne with the seizure of our embassy and the holding of its entire staff hostage for 444 days is grossly out of line."

Laingen says: "Whatever the grievances against us among the secular nationalists in Iran at the time and since -- and they were and are genuine -- it is absurd to suggest that this somehow makes less offensive the seizure of an embassy and all its personnel and their use as political pawns to further the revolution. That action remains today, and it should not be forgotten, among the most egregious violations of the norms and traditions of diplomacy in the history of that profession."


The U.S. administration of President Bill Clinton was disappointed that Khatami didn't invite any intergovernmental dialogue, writers for The Times of London say in a news analysis. Bronwen Maddox in Washington and Michael Theodolou in Nicosia write: "That omission was probably due to a compromise between Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's hardline religious leader, and the reformist-minded Mr. Khatami, who is determined to steer Iran out of its isolation. He has already improved relations with key pro-American Gulf Arab states."

The writers say: "At the risk of disappointing Washington, Mr. Khatami was anxious to move slowly rather than do anything that would encourage his hardline opponents to hamper his efforts, diplomats said."


"Top (U.S.) advisers on Middle East policy dismissed reports that the administration was disappointed in Khatami's remarks, citing attacks on him (yesterday) by the conservative Iran News and Kayhan newspapers as evidence that Khatami had extended as strong an overture as he dared," Barton Gellman writes in a background analysis in The Washington Post. The writer goes on to note Khatami's remarks in the CNN interview that, "There is a grave mistrust between us. If negotiations are not based on mutual respect, they will never lead to positive results." Gellman writes: "Though couched in the negative, that comment was seen in the administration as a strongly hopeful sign."

Gellman, citing "knowledgeable officials," says also: "The Clinton administration recently proposed face-to-face talks to the government of Iran, conveying the overture in writing by way of a sensitive diplomatic channel reserved previously for pointed warnings and threats. The proposal, delivered by Swiss Ambassador Rudolf Weiersmueller to the Iranian Foreign Ministry, followed reformer Mohammad Khatami's inauguration as Iranian president in August."


Concerning the recharged economic crisis in Asia, the British newspaper Financial Times turns an editorial spotlight on Indonesia. The newspaper says: "After South Korea, Indonesia has become the latest Asian country to see its currency and equity markets in free fall. But with the government of President Suharto clearly way off the mark in meeting the conditions of its International Monetary Fund rescue program, it is much harder to see how Indonesia can be helped by the international community."

The editorial says: "Mr Suharto's record on handling the latest crisis is dismal. His silence yesterday as the markets crumbled and panic-buying hit the shops was deafening. The economy is increasingly rudderless, and the latest budget, which is based on unrealistic assumptions about the exchange rate, growth and revenues, openly flouts targets laid down by the IMF."

It concludes: "The choice facing him now is stark. If he wants the hemorrhaging of the markets to stop, he must come out clearly with a commitment to reform, backed up by immediate action which makes that pledge credible. If he cannot do so, he must consider stepping down in favour of someone who can. The alternative is further descent into chaos, and almost certain default. That might cut Indonesia off from foreign capital for years. It would be painful for creditors, but the pain would be more bearable than the problems created by writing a blank check to a government that refuses to put its own house in order."


As significant as economic turmoil may be, internationalists shouldn't let it blind diplomatic leaders to other kinds of imminent disasters, Jonathan Clarke writes in a commentary in today's Los Angeles Times. Clarke, a former member of the British Foreign Service, now is affiliated with the private U.S. policy study organization, the Cato Institute.

He says: "With attention transfixed by Asia's economic travails, it is easy to forget yesterday's foreign policy fixations. Bosnia, for example. Having talked a big game of resistance, Congress has acquiesced in the administration's decision to extend the U.S. mission there with barely a murmur of protest. Such moments of inattention can be exceedingly dangerous. Especially when, as is happening today, America's friends are launching policy initiatives that may reignite a Balkan shooting war -- this time with U.S. forces at the center.

"The issue is a new German and French plan for Kosovo. Kosovo is a small, economically backward region inside Serbia populated by a large majority of ethnic Albanian Muslims. The trouble is that Serbs regard it as the cradle of their civilization. All the makings of tragedy are present. The Kosovo Albanian leaders demand instant independence, a demand backed up by assassinations carried out by a shadowy 'liberation army.' On Sunday they announced that the 'armed struggle' had begun."

Clarke writes: "Having apparently learned nothing from their ill-judged intervention in 1991, the German and French foreign ministers sent a crisply worded letter to Serbia and Kosovo leaders at the end of November exhorting them to start a dialogue about Kosovo's future. Not surprisingly, those actions hardened Kosovo's demands for independence and promoted a walkout by Serbian leaders at an early December conference reviewing the Dayton peace accords."