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IRAN - Profile - Sayyed Mohammad Khatami.

The man who took office on Aug. 3, 1997, as Iran's fifth president, Khatami is a religious figure with a rank of hojatulislam (Hoj). He was elected on May 23, 1997, in a landslide victory over the traditionalists, which came as a stunning political upset since Ayatullah Khomeini ousted the pro-American Shah in early 1979.

Khatami won 20,078,187 (69%) of the total 29,767,000 votes cast, compared to 7,242,859 (25%) for his main rival Speaker Ali Akbar Nategh-Nuri, who was the candidate of the traditionalists. Khatami was a relatively low-profile figure before his late entrance into the presidential race in early 1997.

Once he entered the race, Khatami was able to spark the enthusiasm of people on the street, many of whom volunteered to work for his campaign - with the youth and women at the forefront. This was partly because Iranians remembered his final years as minister of culture and Islamic guidance, until he was forced out in 1992, as being marked by a tolerant spirit and openness. In his presidential campaign, he advocated more personal freedom, democracy and the rule of law, as well as a greater role for women.

Khatami had strong endorsements from moderates close to Rafsanjani, including popular and dynamic Tehran Mayor Gholamhossein Karbaschi (who in 1998 received a harsh punishment by a traditionalist court over an alleged financial scandal but he has since appealed this sentence), Central Bank Governor Nourbakhsh, and Rafsanjani's daughter Faezeh Hashemi who is a Majlis deputy for Tehran but whose popular weekly newspaper 'Zan' was recently banned by a traditionalist court (see below).

The president's position is subordinate to the Supreme Leader, Ayatullah Khamen'i, a dour traditionalist who is in charge of strategy, foreign policy, defence and security, the media and the judiciary. Khamen'i, who had thrown his weight behind Nategh-Nuri's candidacy to the presidency, is virulently hostile to the US and the West in general, with Khatami's powers being curbed by parliament and powerful religious institutions dominated by the traditionalists. But Khatami has the people on his side and his emphasis on the rule of law and a civic society will expose the traditionalists' corrupt practices when the latter escalate the fight against the moderates. A showdown between the traditionalists and the moderates, expected at any time before next April, could potentially undermine the power base on which Ayatullah Khamen'i depends so heavily. The role of Rafsanjani, head of the powerful Expediency Council, will be crucial as he will become the ultimate arbiter between the people and the traditionalist theocrats.

Khatami had the endorsement of the ultra-populists, with whom he had close ties during the 1980s. But over the years, Khatami has adopted political and economic views that were far more moderate than those of the ultra-populists - one reason why Khatami was not the first choice of ultra-populists for the post of president. The ultra-populists had preferred former premier Mir Hossein Musavi as first choice. But Musavi refused to return from political retirement.

The ultra-populists were set against Nategh-Nuri, and there were no other viable candidates from among them. Moderate Khatami was a compromise candidate and was backed even by radicals like Sadegh Khalkali, the man who acquired the nickname of "hanging judge" during the early days of the Islamic revolution.

On the other hand, Khatami's electoral victory was sealed by his strong appeal among the young, women and intellectuals. Westernised and affluent segments of Tehran's population, who resent the social strictures imposed by traditionalist theocrats and who usually do not vote, wholeheartedly supported Khatami. Middle-class voters remembered that during his tenure as culture minister in the 1980s he gave unprecedented cultural and artistic freedom to pre-revolutionary intellectuals, a development which led to a marked improvement in the quality of Iranian arts, notably including the cinema. Women were inclined to vote for him because he is a fine-featured and mild- mannered man. Moreover, Khatami had hinted that he might bring a woman into his cabinet, a point backed strongly by Rafsanjani's daughter Faezeh. At the same time, he won the respect of religious people due to his title of Sayyed. For the youth, his tolerance and easy-going attitude held the hope that life could become more relaxed.

The strongest card of Khatami is his popular mandate. He favours a more relaxed society, stressing his support for civil rights, women's participation at all fields, and cultural enhancement. In his May 27, 1997 press conference, Khatami stressed: "All our citizens' freedoms must be observed... We are hoping to have a more legal system". Such views were one reason for the 88% voter turnout, and the implications were recognised by traditionalist theologians like Khamen'i and Nategh-Nuri.

Aged 56, Khatami has good Islamic credentials. A respected intellectual, he wears a black turban signifying his status as a Sayyed. This title designates him as part of the Shiite aristocracy, claiming hereditary links to Prophet Mohammed. He is the son of Ayatullah Ruhollah Khatami, a highly respected theologian who died 12 years ago. (Ayatullah Khatami was a friend and supporter of the late Imam Khomeini). He is also a relative of the Khomeini family: one of his two younger brothers is married to the late Imam's granddaughter.

Khatami served as minister of culture and Islamic guidance from 1982 to 1992. He was forced to resign in 1992 because traditionalists in the Majlis and other institutions judged his views to be too "liberal", a term which in Iranian politics is almost an insult. After his resignation, he served as an advisor to Rafsanjani - a post carrying only nominal importance - and as head of the National Library. His links to Rafsanjani are vital, now that the latter is heading the Expediency Council which mediates between parliament and the powerful Guardians Council and other institutions.

Khatami is a man of integrity who also attracted the votes of the poor, both urban and rural. Unlike other theologians, he is not corrupt and has a simple lifestyle. He drives a Paykan, a 35-year old British Hillman Hunter model which is still produced in Iran, while senior theologians normally prefer Mercedes-Benzes. He has lived in a two-storey house rather than a palatial mansion. Before the May 1997 elections, Khatami visited the Maronite patriarchate of Bkirke in Lebanon and had a dialogue with the Patriarch, Cardinal Sfeir, and a number of bishops. And when Khatami, as president of Iran and the current chairman of the Islamic Conference organisation visited Pope John Paul II in the Vatican on March 11, 1999, Western leaders were very impressed by his ongoing overtures to the Christian world and his repeated calls for a dialogue among the civilasations.

Khatami has got the attention of the West because of his moderate style and his openness to both Eastern and Western philosophies, partly the result of a well-rounded education. He has been portrayed as "Ayatullah Gorbachev" by 'The Washington Post'. The Western media have highlighted his knowledge of the works of Alexis de Tocqueville and Immanuel Kant. According to the 'Post', when an individual close to Khatami went to his office to urge him to run for president, he was in the process of translating in longhand De Tocqueville's classic treatise on American democracy.

During the Islamic summit conference in Tehran in December 1997, a big event for Iran, Khatami's moderate speech sharply contrasted the sharp anti-US address of Supreme Leader Khamen'i. And while Khamen'i devoted part of his speech to stressing that the rules of the Islamic revolution were above all other considerations, Khatami emphasised human rights and the will of the people. It was more than a cultural clash between the two men, in front of the world's Muslim rulers who included Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah Ibn Abdel Aziz.

By then, Khatami had made an unprecedented overture to the US. On Dec. 14, 1997, he told a press conference - the second since his election: "I hope the American politicians would understand their time better, understand the realities, and move forward. He declared his "great respect" for the "great people of the United States". He added: "At the appropriate time, I will present my words to the American people... I would hope for a thoughtful dialogue with the American people and through this thoughtful dialogue we could get closer to peace and security and tranquility".

However, positive exchanges between Khatami and US officials stopped abruptly in July 1998 after Iran test-fired a medium range missile capable of hitting Israel, Saudi Arabia or parts of Turkey, with the military being under Khamen'i control. The five-year prison sentence given by a traditionalist court to Tehran Mayor Karbaschi was another negative sign from Washington's standpoint. Khatami tried but failed to prevent the court action against his ally, with Karbaschi having directed Khatami's election campaign.

The power struggle between Khatami's moderate camp and the traditionalists took another bad turn when the Majlis in 1998 forced Abdollah Nouri, one of his closest allies, out of the cabinet. The struggle escalated after the municipal elections, held for the first time ever in Iran on Feb. 26, 1999, as a 70% majority of local council seats were won by Khatami's camp. It was a stunning defeat for the traditionalists. All 15 seats on Tehran's municipal council went to pro-Khatami candidates led by former interior minister Nouri. In 1998 Khatami had made another moderate, Abdulvahed Mussavi-Lari, interior minister to replace Nouri. But after their Feb. 26, 1999 defeat, the traditionalists mounted stronger attacks on the moderate camp and on March 11 traditionalist MPs in the Majlis tried to impeach Mussavi-Lari.They failed. They subsequently tried to annul the election of Nouri and other moderates to the Tehran local council, through a ruling by a traditionalist-controlled electoral commission.

The traditionalists have used every occasion to attack Khatami's camp. On April 11, 1999, one day after Deputy Chief of Staff and Khamen'i military advisor Gen. Ali Sayad Shirazi was assassinated in Tehran by gunmen from the Iraq-based opposition Mujahedin e-Khalq, the traditionalist English daily 'Tehran Times' said: "Unfortunately, healthy rivalry among political parties and factions has been replaced by attempts to monopolise power in Iran". Other pro-traditionalist papers attacked Khatami's government for not having prevented the Mujahedin attack. But a pro-Khatami paper said: "Terrorism in Iran has reached a dead end. Rajavi's small (Mujahedin) organisation has not profited by this attack. Our people consider the violence to be a result of the absence of open politics and a civil society. The only antidote to violence is President Khatami's opinion: freedom of thought, logic in dialogue and the rule of law". (Gen. Shirazi, close to the traditionalists, was described by the Mujahedin as "the Butcher of Kurdistan" and was accused of having caused the death of hundreds of Mujahedin fighters during the Iran-Iraq war).

On April 10 Rafsanjani's daughter Faezeh Hashemi, a Khatami ally and MP for Tehran who publishes the weekly 'Zan', hit at the traditionalists. She was responding to their attack in the Majlis because 'Zan' had published in March 1999 an annual message to the Iranian people from ex-empress Farah Diba on the occasion of Nowruz - a Zoroastrian new year festival. It was the first time since the Pahlavi shah's ouster in early 1979 that an imperial message to the people was carried by any publication in Iran. And as 'Zan' was run by Rafsanjani's daughter, that move was very significant.

On April 6, the traditionalist-controlled authorities issued an indefinite ban on 'Zan' and on April 10 the traditionalists said Faezeh's move caused great harm to the Islamic revolution. She retorted that they had nothing to do with the Islamic revolution. She had also angered them because, together with Farah Diba's message, 'Zan' had published a cartoon against the traditionalists. On April 7, the moderate paper 'Neshat' said in its headline in reaction to the ban against Faezeh's weekly: "The traditionalists want to block moderates backing the President ahead of next year's legislative elections". A pro- Khatami figure close to the moderate Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Ataollah Mohajerani who has been brutally attacked by pro-traditionalist thugs, said on April 17: "A showdown (between the moderate camp and the traditionalists) is inevitable. But everytime they (traditionalists) attack us before the (spring 2000 parliamentary) elections), they will expose themselves further to the public and the people are already aware Born in Ardekan in the southern province of Yazd in 1943, Khatami in his early years showed considerable interest in Jaafari theology and related subjects. He excelled in the Arabic language and the study of the Koran. He then went to Qom where he studied at the Jaafari Theological Science Centre. Students at this centre are called "Tollob", a generic term for those who have excelled in high school education and shown a special aptitude for the study of theology. He graduated from the centre in 1961. He also had education in Isfahan. He got a bachelors degree in philosophy. He then went to the University of Tehran where he got a PhD in theology.

In the meantime, he had built up a friendship with the son of Khomeini, Ahmad. He went to work for the Association of Militant Theologians which opposed the shah. In the 1960s, he came to the attention of Ayatullah Mohammed Beheshti, the ideological brain behind the Islamic Republican Party (IRP) and a key figure in the 1979 revolution. Khatami was appointed by Beheshti in the 1970s to run the Islamic Centre of Hamburg, which was then a nerve centre for the revolution in Europe. Beheshti had himself run the centre previously. Khatami travelled extensively in Europe during that period and participated in various Islamic conferences worldwide.

Khatami returned to Iran in 1979 and took control of the Kayhan Group, which publishes a number of newspapers. He was Khomeini's representative to this group and edited 'Kayhan' newspaper in 1979-82. He was a Majlis member for Ardekan in 1980-82. In November 1982, he was appointed minister of culture and Islamic guidance, which supervises the Iranian film industry, the publishing business and the mass media.

During his term as minister, Khatami showed a more liberal image, encouraging film-makers to take part in international festivals. He curbed censorship and overturned a ban on live music. He allowed the publication of moderate dailies and weeklies. He was reinstated in the post in August 1989. In 1988-89, he was also in charge of the cultural and publicity affairs department of the armed forces general command under Rafsanjani, who was then speaker. But his "liberal" views were opposed by the traditionalists who in 1992 forced his ouster through constant pressures applied from parliament, which by then had come under their control.

Khatami's publications include "Analysing Political Issues; Translation Of A Sermon From The Third Imam Of Shia" and "A Glance At The Principle Of Velayat- e Faqih". He is fluent in Arabic, English, French and German. He enjoys mountain hikes and table tennis.

Khatami is surrounded by Arabists. Having visited Lebanon frequently before his election to the presidency, he is married to the niece of Imam Musa Al Sadr, the Shiite Lebanese leader who vanished while on a visit to Libya in 1978 and since presumed murdered. He has a son and two daughters. He is close to Lebanon's Speaker Nabih Berri. His elder sister, a mother of six aged 60, was among the winners in the Feb. 26, 1999 local election. He has two younger brothers, Ali Khatami, a lawyear; and Dr. Reza Khatami, 38, a kidney specialist who serves as a deputy health minister and one of the president's closest aides. The head of President Khatami's office is Mohammed-Ali Abtahi, who was his close aide in the 1980s.
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Publication:APS Review Gas Market Trends
Date:Apr 19, 1999
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