29 October 2003

Turkey and Iran Can Help U.S. Promote Democracy in Iraq

Experts at Middle East Institute's annual conference examine U.S. options

By Afzal Khan
Washington File Special Correspondent

Washington -- Turkey and Iran are being seen as new players in the U.S. push for democratization in Iraq, according to panelists at the 57th Annual Conference of the Middle East Institute held at the National Press Club in Washington October 22-23.

Zeyno Baran, Director of International Security and Energy Programs at The Nixon Center, advanced the argument that Turkey is the only secular Muslim democracy in the region and that its brand of tolerant Islam could serve as a model to stem the tide of Islamic fundamentalism in the region while supporting the push for democracy in Iraq.

Baran said Turkey had kept Islam out of politics since 1917 when Kamal Ataturk fought the liberation war to found modern Turkey.

Quoting the Turkish Foreign Minister at the recent Asian Economic Summit in Bangkok, Thailand, Baran said that a Muslim society is capable of "changing" and adapting to "modernity."

Baran reminded the audience that Turkey's Islamic heritage did not prevent it from eschewing anti-Semitism and maintaining close ties with Israel.

Baran said the United States should explore the positive role Turkey could play in the "Greater Middle East."

In the same panel entitled "Stability and Democracy in the Middle East," Bahman Baktiari from the University of Maine said that "gradual secularization" is taking place in Iran with "more and more young people" turning away from the Islamic focus of the regime.

Baktiari, an associate professor of Political Science and Director of the International Affairs Program at the university, emphasized that "a societal change" is taking place in Iran through its new generation born after Khomeini's Islamic Revolution in 1978. He said that this "society (of young people) is dynamic but the government (manned by the older generation) is in a gridlock." He explained that Iranian politics is basically "factional" with different societal groups pushing their own agendas. As a result, the central government is basically engaged in "conflict management" and, therefore, in constant gridlock.

According to Baktiari, Iran is developing closer ties with fellow Shias in neighboring Iraq. He further maintains that Iranian clerics will have more influence with Iraq's Shia population because Iranian clerics are "more progressive" than their Iraqi counterparts.

In an earlier panel entitled "American Perspectives on the Middle East," Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution pointed out that Iran has played "a good role" in Iraq by preventing "hot-head" clerics from gaining influence among that country's majority Shia population.

"Chaos in Iraq frightens Iran," Pollack stressed. He said that Iran would prefer a democracy in Iraq -- however reluctantly -- over the installation of a Sunni dictator or a civil war resulting in chaos.

Other panelists remained more cautious in their assessment of the prospects for the democratization project in Iraq. Peter Bergen, currently a fellow at the New America Foundation and terrorism analyst for CNN, discussed the threat of terrorism confronting this effort.

Bergen claimed that Al Qaida has some "70,000 followers" worldwide and that Iraq has now most likely become their focus of operations. Bergen observed that recent suicide operations there had the trademark of Al Qaida and expressed doubt as to whether Saddam loyalists would have carried them out.

Bergen said that families in Saudi Arabia have reported that "some 3,000" of their sons are missing and presumably gone to the "jihad" in Iraq. According to him, jihad in Iraq has become more "legitimate and viable" given the U.S. attack on this Arab Muslim country and the easier availability of targets in the person of U.S. soldiers operating there.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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