US Foreign Policy

The Khatami Visit and US-Iran Relations

in Program

The unusual visit of former Iranian President Khatami to the United States at a time of such uncertainty in US-Iran relations generated strong reactions and unrealistic expectations in many quarters.  There are two distinctly different discourses on Iran, and these different worldviews were manifested clearly in the response among key American groups to his visit. 

For many who believe that US-Iran differences cannot be resolved without some form of engagement, Khatami’s visit was full of promise.  It was hoped that he was carrying a message, that the US government was interested in receiving a message, that the impact of his gentle approach would change the mood in US policy circles.  They also were prone to the belief that the visit could not have happened without support from the regime in Tehran, and a political decision from Washington. 

Others who look at Iran as an acute threat to US interests for the familiar litany (first and foremost its nuclear program, followed by support for terrorism, poor human rights record, hegemonic ambitions in the Gulf) were deeply unhappy that the visit took place at all.  They thought it was inappropriate to recognize, even show respect, to the former leader of country on the “axis of evil,” banned as a state sponsor of terrorism and subjected to multiple layers of US sanctions.  Distinct interest groups, including Iranian exile oppositionists and victims of terrorism, protested the visit and criticized the Bush Administration and the cultural institutions that hosted President Khatami. 

President Bush has now articulated his own view: the visit was an opportunity to show that the United States is open to engaging with moderate Iranians, that our quarrel is not with the Iranian people, and that we are confident that our open and free society can welcome people of diverse views.  In a striking interview with Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, and later in his remarks to the UN General Assembly, the President emphasized his desire for a diplomatic solution to the differences over the nuclear issue, and went out of his way to make distinctions between the intentions of “some in your government” and the vast majority of Iranians who have peaceful intentions.

Will the Khatami visit make a difference?  On the American side, his visit coincides with a potentially significant shift in tone relating to Iranian goals in seeking to obtain nuclear power and to Iran’s intentions in negotiating with the UN.  American officials are using convulated phrases such as “we acknowledge that Iran considers its proposal to be a serious one,” or the President’s “I understand that you believe it is in your interest….to have nuclear power.”  This represents a move to using real diplomatic tools – empathy for your adversary’s fundamental interests and concerns – that has long been missing from a more aggressive and accusing rhetoric emanating from both capitals.  Part of this year’s fall football season will be the way the other team, those seeking to deter and even defeat Iran through military coercion or confrontation, tries to grab the Iran ball away from the diplomats and bring it back to the Pentagon’s playing field.

On the Iranian side, the impact of Khatami’s visit depends largely on whether the people in power in Tehran want to hear what he has to say, and what Khatami himself took away from his encounters with Americans.  It is doubtful that the Supreme Leader and President Ahmadinejad fully trust Khatami and they would have reason to believe that the US government’s hands-off welcome to Khatami is not meant to be a conciliatory gesture towards them, in fact the opposite.  It is also important to remember that Khatami is largely seen as a failed leader in Iran, especially in the reformist camp that was his natural political base.

Khatami’s visit is a reminder that societies need and want to interact, even when the state structure above them is a barrier.  Khatami’s university audiences were polite and curious; the ecumenical events produced more visible signs of bonding, with talk of universal values and the peaceful impulses of the major religious traditions.  President Bush was able to score points by offering more scholarly and cultural exchanges at the same time that his Iranian counterpart is talking about purging universities of secular and liberal tendencies, and visas for westerners or for émigré Iranian intellectuals are harder and harder to come by.

The decision to give Khatami permission to visit across the country (beyond New York) and President Bush’s new found sensitivity to Iranian society form the American response to President Ahmedinejad’s letter of May, in which he compared the two civilizations and explained to the American leader why the world has turned against the US.  President Bush has found a new voice on Iran which could well be intended to say that confrontation with Iran is not inevitable.  Whether the Khatami moment, intentionally or not, heralds a new chapter in US-Iran relations depends on how patient the President will be on nuclear talks and how confident and competent the Iranian regime will be in changing the discourse.  The two countries’ strategists often get seized with calculations about relative strength and weakness, and conclude that it’s never the right moment for compromise or concessions.  Diplomacy and dialogue could be useful in overcoming that conceptual stalemate. 

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