In the Arena

Today in Western Asia

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There have been some interesting developments in the countries just east of the Middle East, namely Iran and Pakistan–signs of the horse-trading that is an essential, if uncelebrated, part of democracy. 

In Iran, the former reformer Mohammed Khatami has dropped out of the presidential race. This is good news for those–and our numbers are legion–who want to see Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defeated in June. Why? Because there were at least two other reformers in the race and Khatami, who lost much of his credibility within Iran during his milquetoast presidency, risked splitting the vote. Khatami’s withdrawal was precipitated by the entry of Mir-Hussein Moussavi, a former prime minister, into the race. I’m not sure about the relative merits of Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the other reformer running. But I plan to be following this closely over the next few months and will let you know more about both–plus the conservatives in the race–as I learn more. Add: In fact, here’s  a more nuanced analysis from Time’s Nihad Siamdoust.

In Pakistan, there has been a hopeful, if temporary, political compromise. President Asif Ali Zardari has reinstated the Supreme Court Chief Justice Ifthikar Mohammad Chaudry. Zardari’s government remains shaky, at best–and the deal is attributable mostly to the strength of his domestic opponents and pressure applied by Pakistani military, but also to a new, more enlightened US policy of not playing favorites in domestic Pakistani politics–and phone calls from Richard Holbrooke and Hillary Clinton.

To step back a bit, the two main political parties in Pakistan are corrupt, family-held enterprises–one led by the Bhutto family (Zardari is Benazir Bhutto’s widower) and the other led by Nawaz Sharif and his family. Their relative popularity depends on who’s in office. (The party out of office is almost always more popular, as is the case now with the Sharifs.) The Bush Administration favored the Bhuttos, who are more secular; the Obama Administration seems intent on taking a more dispassionate path. Crucial in all this is the Army, and perhaps the most hopeful sign is–unlike almost every other governmental crisis in Pakistan’s history–there wasn’t a coup. General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani has pledged to support the democracy and, for the moment, he seems as good as his word. But Zardari’s government remains both weak and inept–and it is entirely possible that the reinstated Chief Justice of the Supreme Court will rule that Zardari should be thrown back in jail, for his past corruption convictions. Still, the events of the past few days represent progress. I’ll take good news where I can find it.