Speakers gather to discuss democracy, promote middle east relations

One day after Americans voted in midterm elections, USF held a conference Wednesday that sought to shed light on middle eastern relations.

“Electoral Politics and Democratization in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Iran,” which was hosted by Mohsen Milani, a politics professor and chair of the Department of Government and International Affairs, began with a symposium on Afghanistan and Iraq, where the allocation of power between state and federal government is a major issue.

In the U.S., the Democratic and Republican parties also differ in their points of view on the appropriate distribution of power between state and federal government.

Milani welcomed guests to the first day of a two-day event at the Embassy Suites on campus and said there are more democracies in the world now than ever before, but they “need to be clean, competitive and transparent.”

“Democratic ideals are energizing and inspiring a vast portion of the population of the world, but make no mistake about this, elections are necessary,” he said. “Simply put: no election, no democracy.”

Provost Ralph Wilcox said the conference was a great opportunity to create a “stable” place for democracy in the four countries.

“In coming together, we create space for new ideas and create solutions to old and pervasive problems,” Wilcox said. “During the next two days, some of the world’s leading pictures on elections and democracy in this troubled region will challenge us to move beyond what we think we know about Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

M. Nazif Shahrani, a professor and studies chair of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at Indiana University, opened the symposium on Afghanistan and Iraq by discussing the Afghanistan constitution.

“The constitution that in 2004 was ratified has often been characterized as the most enlightened in the Islamic world,” he said. “But nobody ever asks whether it is the most appropriate constitution for a country that had suffered 30 years of war.”

Shahrani said the executive side of the constitution is “responsible for most of the disaster” that persists today. He called it a “super-presidential” government, in which the president, not the people, appoints local officials and others.

“Most government officials – (from) the ministers, all the way to the district level – are appointed (by the president),” he said.

Shahrani said the result is a “basic system” where kinsmen and cronies are appointed to high positions first and other offices have prices attached to them.

However, Iraq faces contrary challenges.

Feisal Istrabadi, former Iraqi ambassador to the U.N. and visiting professor at Indiana University, said Iraq’s problems stem from a system of regionalism.

“We have a constitution which effectively dismantles the state and assumes that all parts of Iraq will become regionalized,” he said. “The problem is the Arabs in Iraq have consistently, since the constitution was drafted and ratified, rejected division of the country.”

Each of these speakers, as well as Amin Tarzi, a professor at Marine Corp University who, like Shahrani, focused his lecture on Afghanistan and lamented the absence of a state census in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

Iraq has not held a census since 1957, and Afghanistan has never had one. Each speaker identified conducting a census as an integral component to resolving issues in the respective states.

Tarzi said “the need for a census” is not a “matter of taxation,” but “empowerment” through identifying the various local populations and then electing representative locals in those areas.

Following the symposium on Afghanistan and Iraq, the conference featured two keynote speakers, including columnist for the New York Times and International Herald Tribune Roger Cohen, who described “the psychosis” he feels is encroaching upon what might otherwise be positive American and Iranian relations.

“It is a relationship that is related to trauma … On the Iranian side, there was the U.S. role in the 1953 toppling, in a coupe, of Prime Minister Mosaddegh,” Cohen said. “There was U.S. and western support for Saddam Hussein in the Iraq-Iran war. As for the U.S. side of the psychosis … there was the (Tehran hostage crisis) of 1979.”

Cohen called the U.S. and Iran “unnatural enemies,” a conclusion he reached from his experiences in Tehran during the riots that followed the 2009 Iran presidential election. He identified a country where the majority desired a relationship with the U.S.

The day’s activities concluded with a lecture by Lt. General John Allen, deputy commander of U.S. Central Command. In his lecture, Allen deviated from the day’s earlier discussion and focused on U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“Building enduring partnerships of these states in the region is a major goal of the central government,” he said. “To do that, nearly 200,000 U.S. military personnel and tens of thousands of civilians are deployed in the Central Command’s area of responsibility.”

The second day of the conference continues today at 9 a.m. at the Embassy Suites and features a keynote lecture by Ambassador John Limbert – former deputy assistant secretary for Iran in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs – on the Tehran Hostage Crisis, which occurred 31 years ago.