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Hold the Boos for Khatami

Author: Ray Takeyh, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies
June 17, 2005
International Herald Tribune


As President Mohammad Khatami of Iran prepares to leave office, his tenure is routinely being described as an utter failure.

Khatami neither realized his goal of ushering in an Islamic democracy, nor did he succeed in normalizing relations with the United States. As with most things in Iran, however, the reality is much more complex than a cursory look would indicate. A judicious assessment of Khatami's tenure would give him credit for some major accomplishments.

Despite the power of hard-line clerics and Iran's factionalized politics, Khatami managed to engineer a transformation that no previous politician or movement had achieved. The reformers' electoral triumphs realigned Iran's politics by making the public the indispensable actor of the nation's future.

The hard-liners may have imprisoned reformers and shuttered newspapers, but they could not prevent the Iranian people from asserting their rights and demanding a voice in the deliberations of the state. They could send vigilantes to break up student demonstrations, but they could not long constrain the restive ambitions of Iran's post-revolutionary generation, who make up 85 percent of its population.

Khatami's advocacy of civil society and rule of law led the Iranians to believe that they have rights that cannot be infringed. Should the political process remain unresponsive, this sentiment is likely to assert itself through protest and defiance.

Whatever the shortcomings of Khatami's strategy, he has ensured that the Islamic Republic cannot sustain itself by relying on stale dogma and coercion.

In foreign relations, Khatami's accomplishments were even more momentous. For Washington, the only essential barometer of change in Iran seems to be the extent of its support for Hezbollah. Moving beyond American parochialism, however, one sees that it was during Khatami's tenure that Iran normalized relations with key international actors, namely the European community and Saudi Arabia.

Employing his electoral mandate, Khatami compelled the all-powerful supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and an influential segment of the conservative bloc to support his progressive foreign policy initiatives.

It is important to recall that when Khatami assumed the presidency in 1997, there were almost no European Union ambassadors still in Iran. The European policy of "critical engagement" had turned much more critical after the death sentence imposed on Salman Rushdie in 1989 and the sporadic killing of Iranian dissidents.

It was Khatami who finally revoked the fatwa against Rushdie and ended the assassinations of Iranian exiles in Europe. Although today Tehran is engaged in delicate negotiations with Berlin, London and Paris over its nuclear status, the nature of relationship between the two parties has fundamentally improved. European trade delegations, diplomats, scholars and tourists are now routine sights in Iran.

Beyond Europe, Khatami instituted a significant shift in Iran's Gulf policy. Although many have often focused on Iran's hostility toward the United States and Israel, during the first two decades of the revolution, the state that was subject to most pernicious of Iran's machinations was Saudi Arabia.

Khatami keenly appreciated that Iran could not harmonize relations with the Gulf sheikdoms so long as it did not come to terms with the most important of the Gulf states, Saudi Arabia. In a reversal of two decades of animosity, Khatami managed to reconcile with the House of Saud shortly after assuming power.

After much backroom negotiation and pressure, Khatami once more secured Khamenei's essential backing for his "good neighbor" diplomacy, ending Iran's debilitating isolation in a region critical to its strategic and economic vitality.

During his tenure, Khatami ushered in a foreign policy that focused expanding trade, cooperative security measures and diplomatic dialogue. Ideological dogma and propagation of revolutionary Islam were not only seen as inconsistent with the reformist perspective but of limited use in an age of globalization.

After his eight years as president, Khatami is leaving an Iran fundamentally different from the one he inherited. As the famed dissident journalist Akbar Ganji conceded, "The genies are out of the bottles and the bottles that once contained them are cracked." And it was Khatami who first broke the bottles.

Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is co-author of "The Receding Shadow of the Prophet: The Rise and Fall of Radical Political Islam."

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