The Sunday TimesNews/Comment

01st June 1997



Iran's polls and the Islamic revival

Described by western media as a "moderate" and a "democrat" Mohammed Khatami crushed his opponent by polling 20 million out of 29 million votes cast at Sunday's poll. His platform was "Democracy", with a strong emphasis on personal freedom and Human Rights. He stood for "diversity"-different forces, views, thoughts and skills - while making it clear that he believed Iran needed "to reinforce Islamic foundations, and values as well as the morals of Mohammed to preserve the dignity, the rigts and civil liberties of all citizens to realise social justice, while developing the country".

In short, the Prophet and his teachings, the ultimate guide was to be the model for a future President who was ready to interprert ISLAM in a manner that placed him in a school of thought quite apart from the "fundamentalists". He will lead revolutionary Iran to the 21st century receptive as he obviously is to the aspirations of a new generation. Or, if you wish, the enlightened modernist fully aware that the time for change had come.

So how did the Establishment and mass opinion respond to the manifestation of the new leader. "I do hope that Mr. Khatami will be successful in achieving his goals and programs" said President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. At least one western news agency reported that there was a pro-Khatami shift in Parliament, regarded by western diplomats, as a bastion of 'the old order'. The White House kept silent, not too sure perhaps whether the new President would abandon the traditional Post -Shah, anti-U.S. policy. Over-estimating the "popularity" of the Shah, western intelligence agencies failed completely to sense the mood of the Iranian masses, or recognise the impact of the Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini, a lonely exile in Paris.

The US put all its money on the Shah, no ordinary king. He was the Shahenshah Aryamehr, the self-styled King of Kings, the Light of the Aryans. But the West, its diplomats and its media were not alone in misreading the swelling tide of anti-Shah sentiment and the tremendous impact of Khomeini's sermons. Iran's neighbour, and its strongman, President Saddam Hussein were also guilty of a monumental blunder. Certain that his large, well-equipped army (western and Soviet weapons) could seize as much of Iranian land as it wished, he invaded Iran.

So sure was President Saddam of a quick, decisive victory in the battlefield that foreign journalists and camera crews were invited to the country and taken to the front so that they could file messages on Iraqi victories. (This writer did so as a privileged guest of the editor of the BAATH party paper Al THAWRA and the Information Ministry).

Islamic Summit

Speaking now from a position of strength, Iran hopes to invite the Iraqi President to an Islamic Summit in Tehran, says Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the outgoing Iranian President. Of course that would not only be an impressive diplomatic victory but a development which could strengthen regional stability, which in turn may lead to a new regional balance, in which Iran assumes a pivotal role. This would also be the first test for the newly elected President Mohammed Khatami's approach to sensitive bilateral and regional issues.

Is President Saddam Hussein still committed to Baathism (Arab radicalism and indigenous 'socialism') or has he, a wily opportunist and highly skilled survivor ready to recognise the reality of Islamic radicalism, an ideology which seems to have an increasingly tenacious hold on the masses from Indonesia to Algeria? But the first item on President Saddam's agenda, I suspect, would be an exchange of prisoners. It would not only be a useful confidence-building measure but for the Iraqi president a success that would improve his popularity rating at home.

Power for him was always a more serious concern than popularity. It was a luxury he could afford as long as oil production was more than adequate, prices fair, and exports reasonably steady. And his grip on the army and the Baath party firm. Right now, he has serious cause for anxiety about morale, in party, and army to the Baath party elite.


Hence the current focus on rapproachment with Iran. But Iran's cause is the Islamic revolution; Iraq's is a secular Arab nationalism. The former, being religious has no known physical boundaries; the latter, both secular and Arab, is geographically circumscribed and exclusive, wrote Nita Renfrew, a former Le Monde Diplomatique Middle-East affairs specialist.

True the historic, all-embracing regional conflict is the Arab-Israeli or the Palestinian question. The P.L.O., the umbrella organisation of the Palestinian nationalist resistance prides itself on its readiness to recognise non-Muslim Palestinian leader like Dr George Habash a communist.

Neither the United States nor Israel, Washington's policeman in the oil-rich Middle-east, is concerned any more about a communist or 'Red' menace. The new "menace" is "Islamic fundamentalism" a dynamic force which western strategists and, more so, western media regard as a direct threat to western interests-oil production, distribution and price.


The Soviet implosion did finally remove NATO's principal enemy Stalin's Russia from Eastern Europe. President Boris Yeltsin notwithstanding the former Communist states of eastern Europe, members of a Moscow-controlled military alliance named the Warsaw Pact, are now partners of the US-led NATO.

Would a new, alliance a new ideology threaten western interests? The Islamic resurgence is already seen as a direct threat to the Central Asian Moslem republics of the old Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. From Afghanistan to these Republics, Tadjikistan, Kazakhastan and Uzbekistan, a militant Islam is on the march. But it all began in Iran.

"It is the changes occurring in the Soviet Union that have the greatest potential for affecting developments in the Middle-East; for it is the Muslim dimension of the changes now taking place within the Soviet Union that could matter most to certain Middle Eastern actors. More specifically the large Muslim population residing along the Turkish, Iranian and Afghan borders has ethnic as well as religious ties with those living across the Soviet border.

For almost 70 years the Soviet border was a very effective barrier separating the two groups, and the Soviet system as a whole seemed to have placed an effective lid on both nationalist and religious agitation among the Soviet Union's Moslem population wrote Itamar Rabinovich, senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University Israel in 1990. On the anniversary of the Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic re-volution, scholars throughout the world, are re-examining the regional and global impact of the Imam's teachings.

Kabila's challenge: to reach for the sky

By Jonathan Power

Let's imagine what post-Mobutu Congo could become. It has diamonds, copper and gold. It has rain and sunshine in abundance. It is not, given its immense size, overpopulated. It has wise political leadership, a stable democracy, economic and financial discipline and good governance.

It is the heart of Africa, not Conrad's ''The Heart of Darkness''. In a word it is not the Congo it is Botswana which, bar the rain (Botswana is a desert country) could be the Congo's twin.

Botswana in the 1960s was one of the poorest African countries, far poorer than the Congo. Today it is a prosperous middle-income country. During the 1970s it grew at a world record breaking 16% a year and in the 1980s a handsome 11% in the 1990s it suffered a few bad bumps when it was blighted by the worst drought of the century and the diamond market hit the floor. (Diamonds account for a third of national income.)

But it successfully changed gears and poured its energy and resources into nontraditional exports - vehicle assembly, textiles and food processing. Again the economy is on the up, growing at a healthy 6-7% a year.

Today, Botswana exudes well-being. Over 30 years, life expectancy, school enrolment and health care have improved nothing less than dramatically. It is cutting its tax rates, privatising even government departments, eliminating crop subsidies and turning its attention, more seriously than it has in the past, to the plight of rural and low-income urban households.

Despite the setbacks of the early 1990s Botswana still maintains a sizeable current account surplus. It has more than $5 billion in official reserves. It maintains a competitive and stable exchange rate that is stimulating non-traditional exports.

This is the challenge for the new ruler of the Congo, Laurent Kabila. The Congo has all of Botswana's material resources - and more. There is no economic reason, albeit plenty of political reasons, why the Congo shouldn't go in the same direction as Botswana.

Such beckoning possibilities influenced Kabila's friend and patron, Yoweri Museveni, president of Uganda. Uganda too was once a country laid low by decades of civil war and corrupt dictatorial leadership. In recent years it has been growing at 'tiger'' rates, emulating the early days of South Korea which when it began its economic take-off in the 1960s was just as poor as much of Africa.

In truth, these days, there is a new economic mood percolating through much of black Africa. Last month the World Bank reported that half of the 48 sub-Saharan African countries had economic growth of 5% over the last two years. This is a quite remarkable transformation after so many years of declining growth, economic derangement and a gross misuse of opportunities. The World Bank/International Monetary Fund prescriptions on privatisation, trade liberalistaion and the scrapping of capital restrictions, so long derided and ignored, are now coming into their own.

Much of Africa is now ready to go forward and Mr Kabila has the choice to join the march or remain in the swamps.

Some will argue, as do the authors of a recent study, ''Agenda for African Economic Renewal'' published by the Washington-based Overseas Development Council, that it's being over-sanguine about Africa's prospects. It rightly points out that if economic growth does not accelerate beyond 5% a year there will be no visible positive impact on the living standards of a large majority of Africans until well into the future.

Moreover, the hurdles still to be traversed are both numerous and difficult, ranging from correct macro-economic policies to secure property rights, effective legal systems, better transport and the universal provision of basic health and educational services. Also needed is a professional civil service, not to mention the democratic political reform that is absolutely necessary if over time there is to be improved ecomomic supervision, reduced corruption and increased government accountability. Then there is the sore subject of the legacy of decades of mismanagement and bad western banking practices, a load of ''unpayable'' debt whose interest payments are consuming every spare penny of the budget of many African countries.

But there is progress. Democracy and probity are spreading. The industrialized, debt-lending countries, as now with Uganda, are starting to ease the squeeze. And there are many African countries that could do more for themselves to find the money to pay off much of their debt, by a more rapid rate of privatisation.

Nevertheless, ''slow but steady growth'' is this study's down-to-earth best prognosis for Africa, as if this is anything to be ashamed of, since this is just what today's industrialized countries did in the nineteenth century. What is more, set against the last 20 years of African decline, it would be a triumph of recovery.

But such modesty may perhaps be unbecoming. Botswana has shown that ''man's reach must exceed his grasp or what is heaven for''. And Uganda, Lesotho, Malawi, the Ivory Coast and Angola, with growth rates at east Asian levels, have done a pretty good job of walking in Botswana's tracks. For Mr Kabila, with a country like the Congo in his hands, it would be best for him to reach for the sky and go for it.

Unanimous ruling in sexula-harassment case

Supreme Court rejects Clinton's legal immunity

Washington- The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Tuesday that a president has no constitutional immunity from civil lawsuits while in office, clearing the way for Paula Corbin Jones, a former Arkansas clerical worker, to pursue a sexual-harassment case against President Bill Clinton.

But while the ruling carries potential for new embarrassment to the president, it is not clear that a trial will proceed while Mr. Clinton is in office.

The ruling, though unanimous, was narrowly worded. It left the door open for a trial judge in Little Rock, Arakansas, to delay proceedings if it is determined that they would unduly interfere with the president's duties.

In Paris, where Mr. Clinton was signing the Russia-NATO agreement, top White House aides expressed surprise at the ruling, but said they would have no official comment.

By establishing a president's legal vulnerabilities, the Supreme Court ruling could affect the conduct of the office for years to come.

Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the court that questions other than those of constitutional immunity could justify a stay of the trial or of pretrial proceedings.

"The high respect that is owed to the office of the chief executive, though not justifying a rule of categorical immunity, is a matter that should inform the conduct of the entire proceedings," he wrote.

The court did not address the issue of whether a judge could compel the president to appear in court at a specific time or place.

Legal experts have said this would raise questions about the constitutional separation of the judicial and executive branches of government.

"We assume that the testimony of the president may be taken at the White House at a time that will accommodate his busy schedule," Justice Stevens wrote, "and that, if a trial is held, there would be no necessity for the president to attend in person."

Mr. Stevens wrote that the constitution gives a president no protection against private lawsuits. "Like every other citizen," he wrote, Ms. Jones "has a right to an orderly disposition of her claims."

The case stems from her allegations that Mr. Clinton summoned her to a hotel room in 1991, when he was governor of Arkansas, and she was a low level state employee, then exposed himself and sought oral sex from her.

Mr. Clinton has denied the charge.

Ms. Jones did not file the claim until 1994, after Mr. Clinton was president, prompting charges from his defenders that she was seeking fortune (the suit asks for $700,000) and publicity. Her supporters said she had filed the suit only after a magazine article identified her.

Ms. Jones's supporters applauded the court ruling.

"Paula has always felt that the courts would find that no man is above the law," said Cindy Hayes, who heads a fund established to pay Ms. Jones's legal expenses.

But Mr. Clinton's lawyers have not exhausted their ability to delay proceedings, and possibly could postpone them until after he leaves office in 2000.

They can seek dismissal of the suit on grounds other than presidential immunity. They can also renew attempts to settle out of court.

Attorneys for the two sides were said to have been on the verge of such a settlement two years ago, but the endeavour collapsed when Ms. Jones's attorneys were angered by last minute published comments from the Clinton team.

The other likely avenue is an attempt by Mr. Clinton's lawyers to delay the case, as suits routinely are. A court would be expected to give serious consideration to a claim from the White House that the particularly burdensome duties of the office of the president justify delaying a suit that could seriously distract him.

The trial judge in Little Rock said when the case first was heard there that there were constitutional reasons barring an actual suit against the president from proceeding, but not pre-trial proceedings.

That, in some ways, could be nearly as distracting as the case itself, particularly if the president were required to make a deposition.

If the president should repeatedly certify that he is unavailable to the court other aspects of pretrial procedure could proceed without his attendance, including written questions and document requests to other parties.

In the past, courts have always respected a president's schedule, as they did when Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman and John Kennedy were sued in private cases, or when Mr. Clinton was subpoenaed to testify in two Whitewater criminal trials.

The case was advertised as one of grand constitutional principles: In a democracy, does the president stand above the law? Does the office confer on him special rights or immunity? Or must a plaintiff in a civil suit receive equal consideration, even though it might interfere with presidential conduct of the nation's business?

Grand principle or not, the case has already received extensive attention in the country's newspapers and on its television and radio talk shows.

A trial could keep highly sensitive matters in the public eye to the president's discomfort. –IHT

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