International Papers

The Young and the Restless

European newspapers welcomed last weekend’s Czech “yes” vote on European Union entry, but eyes quickly turned further eastward to Iran, where an aging theocracy is coming under increasing pressure both at home and abroad.

Judging from newspaper accounts, it’s hard to tell if the protests currently afoot in Iran are fizzling out or gaining critical momentum. Although the number of protesters was down on the seventh night of demonstrations in Tehran Tuesday, the unrest has spread to at least seven different cities. Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung compared “Iran’s hot summer” to the Islamic revolution 25 years ago but pointed out one big difference: “A quarter of a century ago there was a powerful opposition with a fresh ideology, political Islam, a charismatic leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, and an organized network. There is nothing comparable today. … Without being pushed from outside, the Islamic republic will not collapse.” The protesters themselves are in a sense products of that revolution, born when Khomeini urged his countrymen to be fruitful and multiply. Now 70 percent of the population is below the age of 30, and those young people speak bitterly of the oppressive Islamic state. (German translation courtesy of Deutsche Welle.)

The protests come as Western powers appear to be ratcheting up the pressure on the regime in Tehran. Meeting in Vienna on Wednesday, the International Atomic Energy Agency discussed a damning report from Director General Mohamed ElBaradei accusing Iran of failing to declare all aspects of its nuclear energy program, which the Iranian government maintains is entirely for peaceful energy-producing purposes. Belgium’s Le Soir, meanwhile, reported on a Monday meeting of the 15 EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg, where leaders used tough language demanding that Iran take further steps to comply with the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. The tone is new, the paper reports, contrasting it with more conciliatory moves the European Union made toward Iran last year, promoting trade in the hope of strengthening the hand of reformist President Mohammed Khatami. Khatami has disappointed many protesters with the snail’s pace of democratic reforms. (Courtesy of Radio Free Europe.)

A French crackdown against the main armed Iranian exile opposition group has confused matters. Tuesday’s early morning police raid in a Paris suburb against members of the Iranian exile group People’s Mujahideen sparked outrage among opponents of the regime, who accuse Paris of currying favor with Tehran, which welcomed the move. Iran’s Mehr News Agency quoted an unnamed official at the French Embassy in Tehran saying, “The arrests came during the police manhunt for 150 [People’s Mujahideen] members who were planning terrorist operations.” The raid saw 1,300 police officers hitting 13 different addresses, detaining 158 and seizing communications equipment as well as $1.3 million in cash, according to the Guardian.(The Daily Telegraph put the number of detainees at 165.) French daily Aujord’hui en France offered two conflicting explanations: It quoted the former head of France’s national anti-terrorist division as saying the raid was a move to please Iranian authorities so as to maintain French influence in the Middle East. On the same page, another expert said the crackdown is a sign that France is realigning its Middle East policy to be more in line with Washington’s. The paper also pointed out that the operation was codenamed “Théo,” a reference to Vincent van Gogh’s brother, who painted in Auvers-sur-Oise, where one of the raids took place. (Courtesy of Radio France Internationale.)

Part of the problem appears to be that Washington has a conflicted stance on the People’s Mujahideen, which was armed by Saddam Hussein and operated bases in pre-invasion Iraq. While labeling it a terrorist organization and bombing its bases during the recent Iraq war, the United States negotiated a cease-fire with the group in May, and some within the Bush administration have thought it wise to work with the group against its common enemy in Tehran.

In the Czech Republic, dire predications of an embarrassingly low turnout in last weekend’s referendum on joining the EU did not come to pass. The Czech word for “yes” (ano) dominated headlines before and after the weekend vote. Although only 55 percent of the population went to the polls, the result was a resoundingly positive, with 77 percent voting in favor. “The Czech lion roars: YES,” screamed the Sunday edition of tabloid Blesk, the nation’s most popular daily. “YES: We are Europeans,” led Lidove Noviny in giant-size type. Perhaps the most notable headline of the past week was the giant front-page endorsement of EU entry by the respected (and unaligned) Mlada Fronta Dnes on Friday, the day voting began. Though it never endorses candidates and rarely expresses political opinions, the paper urged Czechs to vote “yes” (a one-word headline that took up the entire top half of the front page), despite the various “buts” that go along with EU membership.

Outside the country, newspapers pondered the historical impact of Czech entry. Germany’s Der Tagesspiegelspeculated that the Czech Republic might become, like Britain, “a reserved partner putting a brake on integration.” The paper wrote, “The Czech Republic only half belongs to what the Americans regard as the ‘new Europe,’ but it doesn’t want to be part of the ‘old’ either.” The paper was likely referring to the Czech Republic’s vocal constituency of euro-skeptics, including the Communist Party—the only one in Eastern Europe that has never renounced the pre-1989 dictatorship—and President Vaclav Klaus. (Surprisingly, Lidove Noviny reported on Saturday that over 40 percent of Czech Communists would actually vote “yes.” Klaus, meanwhile, received a comeuppance of sorts when Czech public television allegedly refused to give him air time to address the nation following the vote, a snub Mlada Fronta Dnes led with Tuesday.)

In neighboring Austria, which has often had frosty relations with the former Habsburg province, Die Presse made an appeal for understanding: “Brother Czech, it’s high time for us to talk.” The Prague Post reported last week on poor relations between residents of two neighboring villages separated by the Czech-Austrian border. After border restrictions were lifted in 1989, signs marked “Czechs: Don’t Steal” started to appear in Austrian shops. (German translations courtesy of BBC Monitoring.)