by James A. Bill
The President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Mohammad Khatami, has astonished the world with his repeated emphasis upon rule of law, civil society, freedom of expression and international diplomatic cooperation. Khatami is busily burying the stereotypes about turbaned political leaders in the Mideast.
The 54-year-old cleric's public commentary about the role of women, for example, demonstrates why Khatami represents a new style of leader. In his words: "In our society women have never been treated equally with men. We must eradicate this shortcoming. I believe women must be awarded special privileges because they were oppressed in the past." This indicates how far Iran has come since the revolution of 1978-'79. And it underscores the need for the United States to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the new climate in Iran.
In May, Khatami captured the imagination of the Iranian people and swept into office with 70 percent of the vote. Khatami earlier had spent six eventful years as minister of culture, where he struggled to promote freedom of expression for writers and artists. Even Hashemi Rafsanjani, the powerful president at the time, was unable to protect him from the attacks of the extremists. Khatami was pushed aside, working at the National Library where he built a network of political supporters while translating Alexis de Tocqueville into Persian.
When Khatami prevailed in the presidential elections, U.S. leaders grudgingly acknowledged the legitimacy of the election but maintained their political opposition to Iran. Iran was condemned as a "rogue" and "renegade" and criticized for its human rights record at home, its support of terrorism abroad, its opposition to the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks and its alleged quest for weapons of mass destruction. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States, seeking an adversary, found one in Iran. American politicians of modest ability and immodest ambition, such as Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.), sought to punish Iran by instituting stringent economic sanctions.
The Iranians, on the other hand, had their own list of grievances. They have pointed out that the United States had actively opposed their revolution, that Americans supported Saddam Hussein after he invaded Iran in 1980 and that an American cruiser had shot down an Iranian Airbus killing 290 civilian passengers over the Persian Gulf in 1988. In 1995, the Iranians learned that the U.S. Congress planned to allocate $20 million to the CIA to be used in a covert attempt to overthrow their government.
Although both sides have legitimate grievances, Iran has reached out and sent signals to the United States and the world at large that it is ready to join the international community. In foreign affairs Iran has pursued a number of constructive policies. In Central Asia, for example Iran has professionally served as a mediator in places such as Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Azerbaijan.
Furthermore, Iran has done an outstanding job in caring for millions of refugees within its borders. Also, Iran has signed the Chemical Warfare Convention opening its border to an intrusive investigation by international inspectors. Finally, with Khatami's election, Iran has reached out in friendship to fellow gulf states and the European Union. The Islamic Summit convened in Tehran last month represented Iran's return to the world of respectability. In mid-December, Khatami himself praised the American people and called for a dialogue with them.
In its domestic policy, Iran has conducted elections every four years since 1980. The Khatami victory indicates the competitive nature of these elections. Robust debate takes place in the Iranian parliament and, in a region of the world where political opposition is silenced and where parliaments are either meaningless or nonexistent, Iran's record is doubly impressive.
Despite these facts, U.S. leaders continue to condemn and embargo the Islamic Republic. Having had to admit that Khatami is in fact pursuing constructive policies, many American policy makers have shifted their argument to charges that the president is powerless and ineffective.
Khatami faces enormous challenges. But it would be a mistake to misjudge this man. Close examination indicates Khatami is an astute politician with a huge constituency. He has placed those who share his philosophy in key positions. He has shrewdly stood aside and observed while the extremists lose credibility through their reckless behavior. In fact, the recent surge of mob activity in Iran may be the political death rattle of the extremists. In any event, with Khatami's election, new forces have been unleashed and the heavy doors to democratization have creaked open. With or without Khatami, they cannot be slammed shut again. Today, the United States is finally beginning to realize that its attempts to isolate and demonize Iran have failed miserably. American leaders are beginning to sense that a new policy is in order. U.S. businessmen clamor to gain access to the large Iranian market. Russia, China and the European countries work closely with Iran. Gulf states have opened a dialogue with Iran. With the victory of Khatami, the American position that Iran is a rogue outlaw state has lost much of its credibility.
With a population twice that of the other seven gulf states combined and standing as the major land bridge between the oil-rich Caspian basin and the even richer Persian Gulf, Iran is a major regional superpower. If the United States continues its counter-productive attempts to isolate Iran, it will increasingly find itself isolated. U.S. policy makers should pursue the same policy toward Iran that they have developed toward countries such as China. Strategic engagement must replace the current policy of political confrontation. The time is now.
[James A. Bill is director of the Reves Center for International Studies at the College of William & Mary. He is the author of George Ball: Behind the Scenes in U.S. Foreign Policy.]