International Papers

Students vs. Ayatollahs

The crisis in Iran was the top story across most of Europe and the Middle East Wednesday, though in Britain and Ireland it was overshadowed by those two countries’ frantic efforts to save the Northern Ireland peace settlement, and in Israel by Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s imminent visit to Washington. In the Far East, the big issue is the tension between China and Taiwan over the latter’s abandonment of the “one China” principle.

The student riots in Tehran were taken most seriously by the Italian newspapers, some of which led their front pages with dramatic headlines–“A Day of Civil War” ( La Stampa of Turin), “The Fist of the Ayatollahs” ( La Repubblica of Rome)–and devoted several pages to their coverage of the unrest. La Repubblica ran an interview with Reza Ciro Pahlavi, the 40-year-old son of the last shah of Iran, who expressed eagerness to return to his country as a constitutional monarch. He criticized his father for understanding too late the Iranian people’s yearning for democracy, saying that this was the cause of his overthrow 20 years ago and now of the student revolt against the ayatollahs. He called on the West to support the pro-democracy movement and said that what matters most for Iran now is “faith in secularism, the separation of religion and the state.” He hopes that Iran will “become the first Islamic country to embark on the road of democratization.”

Historical comparisons proliferated in the comments on Iran. Pahlavi compared the reformist President Mohammed Khatami to Mikhail Gorbachev, saying he was attempting an “Iranian perestroika.” Corriere della Sera likened the situation in Tehran to that of Prague in 1968. Several Arab commentators referred to the repression of the student protests as “Iran’s Tiananmen Square,” and the Pan-Arab daily al-Quds al-Arabi said Monday in an editorial that the uprising was reminiscent of the student revolt in Indonesia that led to the overthrow of the Suharto regime.

In an editorial Tuesday, Saudi Arabia’s leading daily, Asharq al-Awsat, urged Khatami to slow the pace of his political reform program rather than play into the hands of the hard-liners. “The latest developments vindicate earlier warnings that Khatami’s opponents might resort to provoking acts of violence, followed by a harsh crackdown on free debate and freedom of expression,” the paper said. “Iran’s only chance of finding a way out of its current crisis lies through institutional politics, not the politics of the street. It would be better for President Khatami to play a long-term game and not let his opponents dictate the pace at which he should implement his reform program.”

But in Bahrain’s Akhbar al-Khaleej, commentator Assayed Zahra wrote that “reform, openness, and liberty” are now inevitable in Iran. The only way widespread civil strife can be avoided is “by the conservative forces realizing that time is not on their side and–should they decide to continue the struggle through to its bitter end–they would be leading Iran to catastrophe.” The Lebanese commentator Joseph Samaha wrote in the Pan-Arab al-Hayat that the events in Tehran show how much further Iran has gone down the road toward democracy than the Arab world has, because in Iran the movement for political reform apparently enjoys mass popular support.

In Israel, Ha’aretz reported Wednesday that, in the view of the Israeli defense establishment, the Iranian theocracy is still not in serious danger of being toppled, but that if it were overthrown, it would have enormous implications for the entire Middle East. One defense source said, “We can only hope that if the liberal forces gain the upper hand in Iran, they will manage to do so before the ayatollahs get their hands on strategic weapons that could harm Israel.” On Tuesday, the daily Yediot Aharanot quoted Barak saying in a private meeting that the events in Iran could change the face of the Middle East in a “revolutionary” manner and might already have an impact on his government’s peace negotiations with Syria. Barak believes that, while there will be no revolution in Iran in the short term, “changes will take place faster than expected,” the paper said.

Both Ha’aretz and the Jerusalem Post led their front pages Wednesday with headlines saying there are “high hopes” in Israel for Barak’s visit to the United States. Ha’aretz said Barak wants “to connect with Clinton in a way that will allow him to extract a promise that the U.S. will not intervene in Israeli-Palestinian permanent status negotiations, nor make policy statements without first coordinating positions with Israel.” The Jerusalem Post said he hopes to “find a common language with US President Bill Clinton, a sympathetic ear at the State Department, and a sense that the days of tense Israel-US relations are over.” The paper quoted a Barak spokesman as saying he was seeking only “an exchange of ideas and positions” with Clinton and was not intending to commit himself to any timetables on the Middle East peace process, but it added: “The sense that there is no rush is something of a facade. In fact, time is of the essence. The coming year is crucial for both Barak and Clinton.”

In China Wednesday, People’s Daily, the official government newspaper, said that Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui was “overrating his strength, like an ant trying to topple a tree.” As Beijing continued to threaten force to halt Taiwan’s pretensions to independent statehood, the South China Morning Post of Hong Kong accused Lee of pursuing a “dangerous course.” Saying it was unclear what he hoped to accomplish by ending his one China policy, the paper commented in an editorial that what he had done was “weaken the constructive ambiguity which has marked relations across the Taiwan Strait for two decades or more, and which has kept them essentially peaceful.” It said it hoped that the two countries (or bits of the same country) “may yet find ways of maintaining the useful imprecision of recent years.”

The Moscow Times said Tuesday that Republican front-runner George W. Bush is missing an excellent opportunity to attack his leading Democratic opponent Al Gore for the administration’s policies toward Russia. “Washington under President Bill Clinton began by embracing Boris Yeltsin, gushing about the booming Russian stock market and bragging about the millions of ‘property owners’ created by the dream team of Anatoly Chubais and his privatizers,” the paper said in an editorial. “Now, just a few short years later, the Clinton team is defensively and guiltily struggling to ignore the world’s largest country, and top US officials disingenuously profess not to be worried by the sight of Russian blackjack bombers flying over Norway in a nose-thumbing gesture at the West.” But Bush “so far does not seem to have the stomach for what is really required on Russia: an American apology (of the sort Clinton so loves to hand out for the long-dead practice of American slavery, for genocide in Rwanda, and for other US moral lapses) and a rebuilding, from the ground up, of this key strategic relationship.”