TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

The Khatami Dossier

As the debate over the invitation to former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami to speak at Harvard’s Kennedy School continues, it is useful to contemplate specific aspects of his record. Because Mohammed Khatami was outflanked on his right by other extremists, he has sometimes appeared as a moderate. Because he has published books and taught at a university, he has been lauded as an intellectual. Yet his government led a brutal crackdown on university students in 1999, and his credentials as a reformer are dubious indeed. His visit to the US, seeking a “dialogue of cultures,” takes place in the context of an emerging campaign against “secular and liberal” faculty of the Iranian universities. Some pieces of the puzzle:

In an account of the status on “Women in Iran—A Look at President Khatami’s First Year in Office,” by Donna M. Hughes in Z Magazine, of October 1998, one reads:

Some analysts have said that the election of Mohammed Khatami to the position of President was due to the votes of women. Khatami’s strongest distinction seems to be that he was not the hard-line government’s favorite candidate. His election was no doubt a vote against the hard-liners. His upset election has garnered him the label of “moderate,” and raised expectations of people inside and outside of Iran.

Khatami has been in office one year now. Is he a moderate? Has the status of women markedly improved in Iran since his election?

There is a widely held view that Khatami supports the rights of women, but his statements and appointments don’t validate that view. Prior to his election Khatami said, “One of the West’s most serious mistakes was the emancipation of women, which led to the disintegration of families. Staying at home does not mean marginalization. Being a housewife does not prevent a woman from having a role in the destiny of her people. We should not think that social activity means working outside the home. Housekeeping is among one of the most important jobs.” (emphasis added)

Student Protests

Khatami oversaw the suppression of the student movement of 1999, an Iranian corollary to the crackdown at Tiananmen Square, a decade earlier. Given the brutality involved, one wonders whether Khatami’s veneer of intellectuality is really only an illusion. What is not an illusion, however, is the way the oppositional movement was brutalized, as described in the moving letter by imprisoned student activist, Ahmad Batebi. While Batebi was imprisoned, “Iran’s President, Mohammad Khatami, stated on 28 April 2004 that ‘Absolutely, we do have political prisoners. There are those who are in prison for their beliefs,” as reported by Amnesty International, which continues with wishful thinking to comment, “Amnesty International members, working with Iran’s growing number of human rights defenders, will continue its vital work so that future political leaders in Iran will not be able to make such statements.” Batebi became an international symbol of the Iranian student movement when his picture was featured prominently on the cover of The Economist.

Ahmad Batebi

Shirin Ebadi won the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2003. Interviewed in the London-based Arabic daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, she commented on the absolute inadequacy of Khatami’s reformism:

Question: “You supported the election of Mohammad Khatami to the presidency. Do you still see him as a leader of the reform movement?”

‘Ebadi: “I was one of millions who voted for Khatami, because if they did not do so the conservatives would have won the election. We had no alternative. Nevertheless, unfortunately, we must acknowledge that President Khatami has wasted all the historical chances given him, and the democratic and reform movements have bypassed him.”

Question: “President Khatami said that your winning is not worthy of ‘all the fuss.’ What do you say to this?”

‘Ebadi: ” I respect the opinion of the president. People are free to have their own opinion about everything.”

Yes, people are free to have their own opinion, unless of course one lives in Iran.

Questions for Khatami at Harvard:

Is he willing to repudiate and condemn President Ahmadinejad’s call to purge Iranian universities of “secular and liberal” elements?

Will he call for the immediate release of all students imprisoned due to participation in democratic participants and does he support the reinstatement of faculty removed from their positions due to religious or political reasons?

Does he continue to believe that the “emancipation of women” was a serious mistake?

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