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Western Press Review: Iran, Nuclear Prolieration, Russia

Prague, 26 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- There is additional comment today in the Western press on the Iranian government's recent crackdown on the country's pro-reform press. Other subjects treated include nuclear non-proliferation, arms control, and Russia's current problems.

NEW YORK TIMES: Eventually Iranians will have to make a choice

Three major U.S. dailies assess Tehran's repression of reformist newspapers and journals. In an editorial titled "Tense Days in Tehran," The New York Times writes: "A fateful struggle is now going on in Iran between the reform forces allied with President Mohammad Khatami and the religious conservatives who control the country's most powerful institutions. The outcome, still in doubt, will be crucial to realizing the hopes of most Iranians for greater tolerance, respect for the rule of law and more openness to the outside world."

The editorial continues: "In about five weeks, a newly elected parliament is scheduled to take office, dominated by the reform elements that won a decisive victory in elections two months ago. But," the paper adds, "conservative clerics are now striking back to dilute the scope of the reformers' victory and weaken the new parliament's authority. [They have now] virtually shut down the pro-reform press."

The paper then warns of dangers ahead: "Some of the most enthusiastic backers of reform, like university students, are growing understandably impatient with the continued setbacks to Iran's tentative new freedoms. There is also mounting discontent with Iran's anemic economy." It sums up: "Eventually, Iranians will have to choose between two dramatically different visions of their nation's future, one based on democracy and the rule of law, the other premised on arbitrary religious authority. If the conservative clerics were wise, they would bow to the reform movement instead of forcing events toward a confrontation."

LOS ANGELES TIMES: Iran's religious hardliners may well be inviting an explosion

The Los Angeles Times writes of "Iran's Pressure-Cooker Repression." Its editorial notes that "this week, Iran's judicial authorities shut down eight dailies and four magazines that had been in the forefront of pro-democracy efforts." These publications, the editorial says, "provided compelling evidence of popular weariness with the stifling social and political restraints imposed by the Islamic revolution."

The paper goes on to say: "There's little doubt [that the conservatives hold] the commanding heights in the power struggle between reformers and reactionaries. Yet," it recalls, "in the late 1970s, it also seemed that power was firmly held by the regime of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Defiant crowds of protesters shattered that illusion." The editorial then concludes: "Now, by using the full power of the state to stifle dissent, deny an outlet for grievances and quash any challenges to their rule, Iran's religious hardliners may well be inviting the same explosion of hostility and frustration that ended the long reign of their predecessor." WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE: Iran really needs someone to say the Ayatollah has no clothes

The Wall Street Journal Europe agrees that, in its words, "all real power in the country is vested in the [conservative] Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and his Council of Guardians." But it is unsure whether the moves against the press "are merely a desperate and doomed attempt by the hardliners to protect their regime, or whether they may presage a threat to Mr. Khatami himself."

The paper suggests that "the hard-liners may be trying to stir up enough unrest to justify removing the president from office. And Mr. Khatami seems to fear such an outcome, saying recently that 'those who say that reforms are against the principles of the revolution are pushing society toward ruin and creating the grounds for dictatorship.' Such words," it adds, "are especially surprising since Mr. Khatami had thus far shrunk from open confrontation with the hardline mullahs. He had seemed something of an Iranian [Mikhail] Gorbachev, pushing for a slight relaxation of press and social controls but never questioning the regime's foundation in the right of absolute clerical rule."

The editorial advises: "As events in Iran play out, the West should support only the growing demands of Iranians for democracy and freedom, not particular political factions. Iran really needs is not a Gorbachev but a Yeltsin -- someone to say, in effect, that the Ayatollah has no clothes. But when and whether such a figure will arise is, at this time, anybody's guess."

BERLINGSKE TIDENDE: The mullahs are still very much in power

In Denmark, the daily Berlingske Tidende says: "The closure of some of the liberal Iranian newspapers underscores the importance of not overestimating the result of the recent parliamentary election. The old regime in Tehran is obviously refusing to begin democratizing the country. It would rather keep it in the Middle Ages-like darkness it has lived in during the past 20 years."

February's parliamentary election, the paper argues, "showed that the people are tired of Islamic fundamentalism, economic deprivation and continuing international isolation." But the mullahs, it emphasizes, "still control the country's security apparatus and courts, and the so-called Revolutionary Guard has the power to twist any legislation to conform to its ideas of Islam."

The paper's editorial continues: "Since Khatami's election as president, the press has played an increasingly important role in Iran's society. If this role is thwarted now, reform-minded political forces in Iran will suffer a serious setback." The Danish newspaper calls on the West to adapt a policy toward Iran to conform to what it calls the country's "new realities." That means, it says, realizing that any change in Iranian foreign policy is "contingent on the viability of the mullahs. So far," the editorial concludes, "developments in Iran have shown that they are still very much in power."

INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE: The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has lost its central aim

In the International Herald Tribune today, a commentary by New Delhi-based analyst Brahma Chellaney assesses the continuing viability of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the NPT, now under a month-long review at the United Nations. Chellaney calls the indefinite extension of the treaty five years ago "a major triumph for the nuclear powers -- the U.S., Russia, Britain, France and China. The treaty allowed only these five declared nuclear weapons states to keep their weapons, while pursuing disarmament. But," he adds, "that very success for the five is [now] proving costly."

The commentator argues that, "despite its membership having grown to encompass all nations except Cuba, India, Israel and Pakistan, the [NPT] is facing major new challenges." He explains: "Many critics have noted that since the treaty was extended, its five nuclear-armed members have lost the incentive to work for real arms control and disarmament."

Chellaney then states flatly: "[The NPT] has lost its central aim: to keep the number of nuclear weapons states at five. India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons in 1998. Israel is known to possess such weapons. No one can be sure that North Korea, Iraq, and Iran do not have nuclear arms or may not soon have them." He adds: "At the root of the treaty's present problems is the non-compliance of its nuclear members with [the treaty's legal obligations, requiring] action to achieve complete disarmament [and banning the transfer] of weapons-related technology." He concludes: "By the time the review conference in New York concludes on May 19, the [NPT's] frailty will be thoroughly exposed."

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: The debate is a sham

In Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Stefan Kornelius worries that the current U.S. plan for ballistic missile defense could rekindle an international arms race. He writes in a commentary: "A ghost the world thought it had buried at the end of the Cold War has returned -- the specter of the resurrected threat of nuclear attacks. Foreign ministers and secretaries of defense are once more debating nuclear warheads, strategic potentials, ranges and a mysterious U.S. shield that's supposed to free the world of the vicious circle of threat and counter-threat once and for all."

"The problem is," he adds, "the debate is a sham. It has precious little relevance to the bloodletting in the Caucasus, the Near East, the Middle East or any of the other hotspots of the world." He writes further: "In the U.S., where the presidential election campaign is heating up, public backing is growing for the ultimate defensive wonder-weapon -- a defense against incoming nuclear-tipped missiles. A weapon like that would satisfy America's deep-seated desire for superiority and invulnerability."

Kornelius allows that "the strategic advantage of an anti-missile defense lies in having the ability to stop a terrorist missile attack on the part of erratic, unpredictable, suicidal regimes like those in Iraq or North Korea. Several arguments," he says, "speak for developing such a system, but the strategic risks are great." Above all, he warns, "an effective anti-missile defense would shatter the balance of power between the nuclear powers, giving the U.S. a clear upper hand. China, Russia and the two European nuclear powers, Britain and France, would suddenly find themselves in the nuclear second-class coach."

INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE: It is unrealistic to cling to the fixation on a supreme leader

Former Finnish diplomat Max Jakobson discusses the desire of Russia's new President Vladimir Putin to restore strong rule in Russia. In a commentary in the International Herald Tribune, Jakobson writes: "Putin is determined to become a strong leader in the Russian tradition, and his powers as president appear to enable him to achieve this. But," he argues, "it is unrealistic to cling to the fixation on a supreme leader that the world was used to in Soviet days, when the Communist Party wielded unlimited power over the lives of the people and could enforce every order emanating from Moscow."

The commentary goes on: "In recent years, power has steadily seeped away from the center to the regions. The federal government has been severely weakened. It is unable to collect all the taxes due to it, partly also because a large part of the Russian economy is still based on barter."

He adds: "Corruption and crime are usually mentioned as the main problems confronting the new president, but no less serious is the decay of the social infrastructure. The deterioration in public health services is a constant drain on the vitality of the population, which is in steady decline. And in many parts of Russia, the environment has been damaged beyond repair."

Jakobson sums up: "Putin has assumed leadership in a country with deep-seated structural problems. He will have to be judged by his performance. He may turn out to be a leader both strong and good, but expectations must be related to the daunting task he faces."

WASHINGTON POST: Unless Western leaders decide to press Moscow harder they will betray the Chechens and also beleaguered human rights activists

An editorial yesterday in the Washington Post asked: "What, exactly, has happened in Chechnya? From refugee accounts and some courageous journalism," the paper says, "we know that Russia's war to extirpate 'terrorists' has cost thousands of civilians their lives, resulted in the torture of young Chechen men at sinister 'filtration' camps, destroyed the capital city of Grozny, and driven more than a quarter of a million people from their homes. This still-fragmentary information," it argues, "suggests a campaign eerily reminiscent of the one Stalin visited upon the Chechen people more than a half-century ago."

The editorial continues: "Alas, many details of that episode are lost to history; if [Putin] has his way, the current facts will be, too. Reports of war crimes are 'disinformation,' his government says; besides, whatever happened is an internal Russian matter. For the record," the paper says, "the U.S. and its European allies express shock and dismay at Russian atrocities in Chechnya. But they make clear at the same time that they consider other business with Russia more pressing -- arms control, the Balkans, economic reform."

The paper argues further that, "far from insisting on the prosecution of those responsible for the Chechen catastrophe -- a demand for criminal culpability that might have led to Mr. Putin's office door -- the U.S. and Europe decided not even to press for an international investigation through the UN Commission on Human Rights, now meeting in Geneva." Unless Western leaders decide to press Moscow harder for meaningful action, the editorial concludes, "they will betray not only the Chechens but also beleaguered human rights activists inside Russia."

(Anthony Georgieff in Copenhagen contributed to this report.)