Khatami in France: Reform on the road

Category: World Affairs Topics: Foreign Policy, France, Mohammad Khatami Views: 761

Iranian President Muhammad Khatami, speaking in Paris during a recent 3-day visit to France, has raised issues of central concern in reference to the current US-dominated world order. Not surprisingly, the first visit to France by an Iranian head of state since the 1979 Iranian revolution caused much agitation among those opposed to Iran's Islamic government. But Khatami seems to have nonetheless remained composed in delivering a message that has resonated throughout the world.

Speaking at a Paris meeting of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Khatami stressed the need for dialogue among civilizations. But in an apparent reference to the United States during his address, Khatami said, as quoted by the BBC, that such dialog was hampered by "governments that have become arrogant and conceited, relying on their economic, material and military power. They consider the logic of force, domination and deception as a suitable means of achieving their ends." Khatami said the new millenium should be one of dialog instead of war, warning that the "sword is a double-edged weapon that will spare no one, and it is quite possible that the mighty warmongers will be among its first victims."

Khatami also argued that no major culture or civilization has evolved in isolation and that it would not be possible to put an end to the century's conflicts without a basic change in political thinking as well as the present pattern of international relations. "With the terrible gap between the rich and the poor in various communities and countries of the world, how can we naively call for peace and mutual understanding?" said Khatami. "And how can we call for dialogue if this inequality persists and if no fundamental steps are taken to help the deprived people of the world?"

Khatami's call for mutual respect among peoples and an end to a U.S.-dominated, uni-polar world seems to have been well received by the French government. France has recently been improving its relations with Iran, and Khatami's visit coincided with a number of economic agreements between the two countries. France has traditionally had somewhat better relations with the Islamic government of Iran than have had other Western nations. France gave Ayatollah Khomeini asylum during the reign of the Shah.

French President Jacques Chirac reportedly met with Khatami for three hours. Khatami also met with France's leftist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. According to Agence France Presse (AFP) on October 29, French officials welcomed Khatami's visit and stressed the two countries' warm relations. Foreign Ministry spokesman Francois Rivasseau said, "We wanted to show our willingness to President Khatami to promote new and constructive relations." Iran's official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported October 30 that Khatami said he was pleased by his reception by French authorities. According to IRNA, Khatami stressed that opposition to the unipolar world-view was a perspective shared by Paris and Tehran and that the two governments would work to improve bilateral relations.

But Khatami's visit was beleaguered by well-publicized protests by Iranian dissidents and by Khatami's continued inability to achieve a diplomatic break-through with Washington. While Khatami's visit provoked a variety of criticism in France itself -- from the Green party for example -- Khatami dealt with the comments from the Washington and the Iranian dissident community in a graceful fashion that had the effect of exposing the contradictions inherent in the criticisms.

The Iranian dissident community under the leadership of the National Resistance Council (NRC) -- the civilian branch of the People's Mujahideen currently staging a guerilla war against the Iranian government -- is active in France as it is in the United States. Members of the NRC in France reportedly dogged Khatami all three days of his visit. French NCR leader, Saleh Rajavi, held a press conference and denounced Khatami as a "demagogue," according to Reuters on October 28. Khatami responded to the protests in an interview quoted by AFP on October 29. Khatami said, "There are some who are opposed to progress in our country," and added that Iran was moving towards democracy "taking into account religious values." He said, "The Islam we have today does not reject democracy."

Khatami's mild defense against the NRC attacks reveals the contradictions of the movement's identity. As a previous iviews.com analysis revealed, the NRC does not seem to have much connection with popular events in Iran. The movement has a different political agenda than the student protestors of this summer and has within its ranks many sympathizers of the unpopular Shah, himself undoubtedly considered a demagogue by many Iranians.

The U.S. reaction to Khatami's visit was expressed by State Department spokesman James Rubin in an October 27 press conference. According to Reuters, Rubin said Khatami's visit signaled an Iranian desire to have "more normal" relations with the West. Rubin made an offer of face-to-face negotiations between Iran and the United States, but said nothing of Iran's request for an end to the U.S. isolation. Rubin then called on French officials to raise U.S. concerns to Khatami. Rubin said France, "as a member in good standing of the international community," should be "committed to urging Iran to change its policies."

But Khatami responded to Rubin's comments in saying, "We have no problem with having economic or political relations with the United States." In a terse rebuttal implying that Rubin's statements were another attempt to impose U.S. ultimatums on others, Khatami said the diplomatic freeze was due to the United States, not Iran. He said, "It is the Americans who are imposing sanctions on Iran and others," according to AFP on October 29.

Khatami's call for greater dialog between civilizations on the basis of justice is a message that will no doubt find resonance among many in the developing world. While Iranian dissidents and the U.S. government will probably continue to fault both the Iranian government and Khatami's leadership itself, Khatami exhibited remarkable courage and resilience in delivering his message. Neither cowardly nor capable of being perceived as extremist, Khatami's recent speech in Paris stands by itself in its testimony to some of the most prominent issues of today.


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