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Mohammad Reza Khatami

Robin Wright, the diplomatic correspondent for the Times, is the author of "The Last Great Revolution: Turmoil and Transformation in Iran."

With but one exception, Mohammad Reza Khatami may be the most popular politician in Iran today. The charismatic physician founded the country’s largest new political party, the Islamic Iran Participation Front, last year. This year, he won more votes than any candidate in any of Iran’s six parliaments since the 1979 revolution. He’s now chief strategist in the new parliament, or majlis, which opened for business in June.

But Khatami isn’t threatened by the one exception, for the only man to receive more popular votes in an Iranian election over the past decade is his older brother: President Mohammad Khatami.

The brothers Khatami, 16 years apart, are charting a new course for Iran. Together, they have broken the hold of religious conservatives, who have dominated all three branches of Iran’s government since the monarchy ended in 1979. Their ambitious agenda centers on restoring the rule of law and opening up a tightly restricted society to new ideas and the outside world.

But the Khatamis are not breaking from the revolution or denying its past. Reza Khatami’s wife is the granddaughter of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the revolutionary leader. Zahra Esraqi, who like many Iranian women kept her maiden name, also embodies the new ways in Iran. As head of a government women’s commission, she has played a key role in promoting women’s issues--and bringing along the women’s vote for the reform movement.

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The Khatamis are unlikely politicos. Born in 1959, the last of seven children sired by a prominent ayatollah, Reza Khatami is a London-trained kidney specialist who never dreamed of running for office. His brother, a former culture minister purged for liberal ideas, was shelved as head of Iran’s National Library until he emerged as a dark-horse presidential candidate and won in 1997.

As comparative newcomers, they still face daunting obstacles in pushing forward the stalled reform agenda. To ease anxieties of conservative opponents, Reza Khatami ceded the job of speaker of parliament to a centrist politician. But he took the deputy speaker’s job.

Between his new political role and an attempt to maintain a medical practice two mornings a week, Khatami says he rarely sees his wife and two children, aged 7 and 14.

“I leave at 6:30 a.m., and I don’t get home until 10 p.m. I love soccer, but I don’t even get much of a chance to see it on television,” he lamented during an interview at his party’s headquarters in Tehran. “My only fun these days is politics.”

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Question: During the election campaign, you pledged that the new parliament would “fulfill the demands of the people.” What steps will you take to fulfill those demands?

Answer: The original goals of the revolution were freedom, independence and the creation of an Islamic republic. Today, the most important thing for people is freedom. . . . We want to restore [their basic legal rights], including freedom of speech, press and privacy; the right to go to court, to have a lawyer, the assumption of innocence until proven guilty and a ban on torture; a ban on censorship, surveillance or listening to conversations; and the universal right to housing, free education and free health care. . . . One of the most important priorities of the majlis is to pass some laws that prevent the police forces and informal forces from interfering in the life of the people.

Q: How critical is a free press to reform in Iran?

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A: Our first priority is to remove the obstacles in the way of the press, which is the symbol of free speech and thought. Unfortunately, the judiciary abused the law. They’ve struck at the rights of the people. We’re also going to pass laws allowing private radio and television. There are many difficulties on this issue, based on different interpretations of the constitution.

The press is very important to us, but we can survive [without the 18 newspapers banned by the conservative judiciary]. The circulation of the [reformist] press was only about 2 million, but more than 30 million voters are with us. We have other forums: some 700 student publications [and] meetings in the cities and little towns. Plus, the majlis’ proceedings are broadcast live everyday to the country and the world. Compare current circumstances with those three years ago, when we had only one paper, Salam, which was very conservative. Now we have five daily journals that are more radical than Salam and are still publishing.

Q: Reformers control parliament, the presidency and local city councils. But they all face stiff obstacles, mainly from conservatives who still control the judiciary, the Council of Guardians and the Revolutionary Guards.

A: We have some plans for our judiciary. For example, the judge is both prosecutor and judge. We need to separate those functions. Also, according to the constitution, political crimes must be judged by a jury, but we still don’t have juries in Iran. Other problems include a separate judiciary for the clergy, which is not according to the law. These are problems that we must take action to correct.

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We also have some problems with the Guardian Council. It’s important to have some plans that do not provoke it to obstruct our way from the first. We must think in the Iranian way, as the president has done. But public opinion is behind us, and the public wants calmness and to continue in our way: It doesn’t matter if it’s not so fast. So we’re not in a hurry to get all these things done in four years. We must have time. After all, it took 20 years to get this far.

Q: Will the young wait that long?

A: Yes. They’re behind us. And they’ll get enough of a response in the next three or four years.

Q: You also called on the government to ban inspection of letters at the post office and other forms of surveillance such as monitoring conversations and censorship. How extensive are those practices? And how realistic is it to think parliament alone can end those practices?

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A: Over the last two or three years, there’s been much resistance against reform. At the moment, we don’t have any law that regulates these things or challenges this resistance. So it’s another of the first steps we must take. The majlis has the power to supervise all parts of the government. We can bring the ministers and other people to parliament and ask them about their practices and implementation of the law. This is a power on our side. The other thing is to talk with the people. If people know what is happening, then other things will change. Maybe we won’t be able to eliminate it, but the law, plus public opinion, can reduce the problem.

Q: Who’s behind this kind of activity?

A: Before the presidential election three years ago, the Ministry of Information [the intelligence branch] was in charge of these things. Now these things are carried out by informal institutions outside the government, meaning, outside the executive branch. But I think the majlis will be able to bring them in.

Q: Because of the parallel centers of power in Iran, it’s often difficult to tell just who does speak for the government and who has power.

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A: Our traditions are much different from other countries.’ Government is not only the three branches: judicial, executive and legislature. There are some powers outside. For example, the clerical institutions, which have branches in every part of the country, are very important, and no one can ignore them. Most are behind reforms. But some traditional organizations in the clerical system are made up of good people who can’t understand the modernity that people need and want nowadays. . . . These organizations think the only way to keep people religious and pure is to ban media.

Q: You warned during the campaign against the danger of “imposing ideas.” What were you referring to, and how can reformers prevent that danger?

A: There were many ideas in the revolution that were very important for us in their own time. In the early moments of the revolution, we were most interested in our independence. We knew many countries wanted to restore the monarchy. So at that time, an Islamic republic meant freedom from a dictatorial monarchy. . . . Today, an Islamic republic means cooperation and compromise between religion and democracy. If we’re not able to compromise, the future of the revolution will be at stake. Science and technology are the most important ways to keep our independence. We must try to relate to the world and grow in these areas. This is our idea today: We must revise our ideas about the meanings of independence, freedom and the Islamic republic.

Q: To what degree are you the voice of your brother, the president?

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A: It’s difficult to say. I’m sure that nothing I say is the voice of the president. But because I’ve grown from childhood with him, our ideas are very close. But I’m 16 years younger, so my thoughts and views are somewhat different.

Q: During the campaign, you pledged a “new atmosphere” that might, in turn, help eliminate tensions with the United States. What did you mean? How will that happen?

A: I can’t estimate what will happen in the next two or three years here. I’m sure relations between Iran and the U.S. will be reestablished. But the timing is very hard for me to guess. The best way for establishing relations is to reduce animosity, not reinforce our many problems. For example, we had problems over the fingerprinting of Iranians [after they arrived in New York for a U.N. conference on women in June]. These things are against our dignity and make our relations much worse. We also don’t see honesty in America’s behavior. In the last three years--at least the last three years--you haven’t seen any terroristic actions related to Iran. Yet, the U.S. repeats these claims against Iran. And America is not sensitive to the way we feel. In the Persian Gulf, we feel threats to us from the U.S. [naval presence]. We must reduce the causes of our enmity. We must improve our economic, cultural and people-to-people relations so that we trust each other. After that, we can talk about political relations.

Q: Iran has long supported Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Will Iran support a peace agreement signed between the Arabs and Israel? Palestinian President Yasser Arafat told me that President Khatami pledged that Iran would do nothing to sabotage a formal peace supported by the Palestinians, even if Iran didn’t believe it was in their interests.

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A: It’s our right to have our idea about world conditions. We think that this Mideast peace is not just or will not last. But that’s only our idea, and we won’t do anything to impose our idea on the people of the region. You can compare our position today and 20 years ago when Camp David happened. We cut relations with Egypt. But when Jordan and Israel made peace, we continued relations with Jordan. We respect the will of the people of the region. *


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