Former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami wrapped up an unprecedented visit to the United States on September 12. While the reform-minded Khatami defended Iran's right to conduct nuclear research, his trip was viewed by the neo-conservative-dominated government in Tehran as subversive.
Khatami's five-city tour was devoted mostly to promoting his favorite themes a dialogue among civilizations and the need for Muslims to come to terms with modernity. He also was critical of US unilateralism in international affairs. Beyond his comments on the nuclear issue, what caught the attention of Iran watchers were his subtle jabs at the incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's administration. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In comments to an audience at Harvard University, Khatami criticized the Ahmadinejad administration's actions to purge institutions of higher learning in Iran of liberal-minded professors. "We cannot afford to lose any professors," Khatami said. "On the contrary, we need to encourage even foreign academics to work in Iran."
Khatami also expressed opinions during his US tour that sharply contrasted with statements made by the incumbent president, and which had not been uttered by an Iranian public figure outside of closed-door talks. The reformist ex-president, for example, acknowledged Israel's right to exist, whereas Ahmadinejad once called for the Jewish state to be "wiped off the map." [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The objectives for Khatami's trip were two-fold: to counter the Ahmadinejad administration's confrontational rhetoric; and to demonstrate that other voices and strands of political thought inside the Iranian establishment remain active. Viewed from this perspective, Khatami's trip can be considered a modest success. It demonstrated that although reformist and old-style pragmatist factions are out of power in Tehran, there still exists a considerable bloc of dissenters within the Iranian establishment -- comprising thousands of civil servants, technocrats, enterprise directors and even some military professionals who are unhappy with general direction the country is taking.
That Khatami made the visit at all probably had as much to do with the will of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as it did with the ex-president's personal preferences. Iran's Supreme National Security Council, which routinely decides on matters such as this, is today heavily influenced by Ahmadinejad allies who are known to detest Khatami and the reformist outlook that he represents. Without question, only Ayatollah Khamenei's personal intervention could have overcome security council opposition, and have given the US visit a green light.
Ayatollah Khamenei is known to disagree with Khatami on many points. But some political analysts in Tehran believe that the Supreme Leader felt that, at this critical juncture in Iran's dealings with the West, it was imperative that the Islamic Republic present a less confrontational face than that presented by Ahmadinejad. Thus, the Supreme Leader sanctioned the trip.
The visit provoked rage within Iranian neo-conservative circles. Prior to Khatami's departure, some hardliners launched a preemptive strike, designed to destroy Khatami's credibility. The strike came in the form of an open letter that received wide play from neo-conservative-dominated media outlets.
The letter's author was Fatimeh Rajavi, who is closely associated with far-right groups and who is the wife of the government spokesman Gholam Hossein Elham. In it, she openly called for Khatami, who is an ayatollah, to be defrocked. "The fact is Mohammad Khatami's trip to Washington is eagerly welcome by the White House," she wrote in her open letter. "The fact is Mohammad Khatami, as the main executioner of the Reformist project, is going to be paid what is his due for eight years of service on behalf of the
Kamal Nazer Yasin is a pseudonym for a freelance journalist specializing in Iranian affairs.