TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Dialogue as Fraud: Khatami, the Dialectical Apologist

As of this writing, news reports of Mohammed Khatami’s presentations are beginning to circulate. Not surprisingly, he refrains from spouting the standard “Death to America” slogans that his Iranian regime has popularized. Instead he recycles his very own standard theme of a “dialogue of civilizations,” an intentional alternative to the Huntington thesis of a clash between them. Yet the evidence is mounting that the much touted dialogism of the alleged reformist is actually a transparent effort to pursue the clash. Khatami’s invitation to conversation never displays a genuine openness to the purported interlocutor; every gesture of engagement is coupled immediately to a retraction. He cedes no ground.

Nor does he show respect for his host. The trauma that still looms over US-Iranian relations remains the 1979 hostage taking in Teheran. To open a dialogue, Khatami might have startled his critics and won a moral high ground through an unqualified apology to the nation for the mistreatment of the embassy personnel. Indeed he had an opportunity for an event of historic proportions by arranging—as his first stop—a meeting with survivors of that drama to ask them personally for forgiveness. That might have opened a new era.

Instead, as the Washington Post reports, Khatami only expressed regret—much less than an apology—but then made matters worse by offering an excuse:

As for the 1979 hostage crisis, when student radicals seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans for 444 days, Khatami said, “I regret the hostage crisis . . . and I sympathize with the hostages and their families for their loss and their hurt but this was (also) a revolutionary reaction to half a century of the U.S. taking Iran hostage.”

His personal sympathy is noteworthy, but as former President he could have expressed much more and offered transformative symbolism. Instead he in effect justifies the suffering of the hostages as part of a “revolutionary” ethics that apparently excuses, in Khatami’s views, mistreatment and brutality. Exactly what kind of “dialogue” could the hostages have with their captors, such as Khatami’s own successor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

This is still very much an open wound, as reported in the Los Angeles Times:

Many of the 52 U.S. diplomats held hostage in Iran for 444 days during the Carter administration are furious with the U.S. government for issuing a visa to a man whose rhetoric is soft but whose policies they believe mirror those followed in Tehran ever since student radicals took over the U.S. Embassy.

“It is horrendous,” said Barry Rosen, who was press attaché at the embassy when it was seized Nov. 4, 1979. “It is as if the U.S. government is forgetting what happened.”

Khatami’s dialectic—expressing regret, but then providing a justification for the embassy takeover—returns repeatedly in his various comments. He seems to make a concession of western opinion, but then retreats into his dogmatism, for cover. Very quickly, one gets the impression that this dialoguer is a dialectician, turning the gesture of openness into its own contradiction.

Thus on human rights (from the LA Times):

“I do not deny that there are a lot of problems in Iran. But I would certainly say those are not [worse] than the problems and violations in places like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo,” Khatami said at a news conference before a speech at Washington National Cathedral, referring to the former U.S. military prison at Abu Ghraib near Baghdad and the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. “Let’s condemn the violation of human rights wherever it takes place.”

Fine idea, let’s condemn human rights abuses everywhere. Unfortunately President Khatami has never condemned them within Iran, where there only ” a lot of problems.” Some of those problems are of his own making. For all the journalistic ink that has been wasted reminding readers that some of the bad guys in Iran are worse than Khatami, his own record is far from clean. Student protesters from the 1999 uprising are still imprisoned: will President Khatami do anything for them, when he returns? But the point here is simpler. His rhetoric betrays a deep inability to give ground: no apology, without a retraction as if he wanted to carry on a “dialogue” with his fingers crossed behind his back.

Or again (from the Washington Post):

“I believe the Holocaust is the crime of Nazism. But it is possible that the Holocaust, which is an absolute fact, a historical fact, would be misused. The Holocaust should not be, in any way, an excuse for the suppression of Palestinian rights,” he said.

It’s the “but” that matters: he concedes the Holocaust, but. (Some of my best friends are Iranian presidents, but . . . ) The mentality again is one of false dialogue. He gives the Iranian tyranny a human face, while apologizing for its declared intention to carry out a second Holocaust through an eradication of Israel. There are deeper connections to be made here than can fit into Khatami’s propagandistic sound-bites. Had he been sincere here, he would have taken the opportunity to distance himself emphatically and by name from Ahmadinejad’s threats.

A related mentality characterizes his comments on the 9/11 bombers: the crime they committed, according to the Post‘s report had two facets. It was wrong, according to Khatami, firstly to kill civilians: which certainly sounds as if he implicitly endorses the attack on the Pentagon. His insistence on the protection of civilians is especially grotesque after the recent war in Lebanon in which the Iran-backed Hezbollah held the civilian population hostage as human shields. It seems as if the specifically Iranian way to fight is to sacrifice civilians.

The attacks of 9/11 were however wrong for a second reason, according to Khatami, a reasoning that reveals his own incapacity for dialogue: the attacks were wrong because they hurt Islam and encouraged an “Islamophobia.” Not the individual victims of 9/11, not their families, not the national community has been abused in Khatami’s view, but Islam. The callousness of the perspective is enormous: the attacks were wrong because of the PR damage they did to Islam. Forget the rest.

The dialogue of civilizations turns out to be no dialogue at all, just self-promotion. Moreover this “dialogue” includes no self-reflective, self-critical moment: hence Khatami’s refraining from discussing in any specifics issues in Iranian society today. Speaking at the National Cathedral, he did not address the persecution of religious minorities in Iran. And as he begins his circuit at some of the premier universities in the US, it is unlikely that he will address the oppressive conditions at Iranian universities. His silence, as a propagandist, is just part of his job. One would have expected more of his hosts. Iranian academics and students will certainly be interested how American universities welcome their opponent.

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