Iran’s Unlikely President

Bim-e Mowj [Fear of the Wave]

by Mohammad Khatami
Tehran: Sima-ye Javan, 205 pp., 5,700 rials

Az Donya-ye Shahr ta Shahr-e Donya: Sayri dar Andisheh-ye Siyasi-ye Gharb [From the World of the City to the City of the World: A Survey of Western Political Thought]

by Mohammad Khatami
Tehran: Nashr-e Nay, 293 pp., 8,500 rials
Mohammad Khatami
Mohammad Khatami; drawing by David Levine


Mohammad Khatami became Iran’s new president in May 1997, winning a surprising victory over a more traditional candidate favored by the clerical establishment. Khatami attracted voters with a campaign in which he emphasized the need to strengthen the rule of law and the institutions of civil society, and to protect the basic rights of Iranians. He said he would tolerate and even encourage open debate and a diversity of views, and address the aspirations of women and youth. If official figures are accurate, over 80 percent of the voters went to the polls-a figure unprecedented since the early years of the Islamic revolution. Khatami received nearly 70 percent of the vote.

The victory was all the more striking because Khatami’s rival and the supposed front-runner, the speaker of the Majlis, or parliament, Ali-Akbar Nateq-Nuri, was endorsed by most of the regime’s leading clerics, cabinet members, and, implicitly, by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the successor of the Ayatollah Khomeini who, in principle, can overrule any other official in Iran, including the elected president. Khatami did well among voters of differing political views and in almost all the provincial districts, even in small towns and villages where citizens traditionally follow the advice of local religious leaders. He did particularly well among the young (anyone above sixteen can vote) and women. Khatami also gained support among the intelligentsia and the middle classes for his more tolerant policies toward the press, book publishing, movies, and theater when he was minister of culture and Islamic guidance in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Since taking office in August last year, Khatami has brought about some startling changes in Iran. Except for his current dispute with the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan, he has greatly improved Iran’s relations with the states of the Persian Gulf and the Middle East. In January, in an interview with CNN, he began the difficult process of mending an eighteen-year estrangement between Iran and the United States by inviting Americans to a “thoughtful dialogue” with Iranians. The Clinton administration has welcomed this initiative, although the US continues to be troubled by Iran’s efforts to acquire long-range missiles and nuclear weapons and by its support for radical Islamic groups, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas and Islamic Jihad on the West Bank, that use violence to pursue their goals. Whether Khatami will have an effect on these policies is still too early to tell; but he appears to have reined in Iran’s own fearful security agencies. Since his election, the assassination of Iranian dissidents abroad appears to have stopped.

Equally important are the changes he has brought about in Iran itself. Censorship has eased and numerous films and books long in the censor’s hands have been released. Khatami’s minister of culture, Attaolloh Mohajerani, has issued permits for dozens of new newspapers and magazines. His minister of interior has allowed several independent cultural associations…

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