This conversation was the first of many surprises I experienced visiting Tehran after the landslide election of President Mohammed Khatemi. I went alone, without invitation or appointments, to get direct impressions of Iranian attitudes toward the United States and their own country's future. Although the United States and Iran reciprocally make it difficult for individuals from one country to visit the other, Iran does occasionally grant visas to American scholars or, in my case, to foundation representatives working on Persian Gulf affairs.
After checking into my past-prime hotel, I entered the rickety elevator to go up to my room, only to hear the Muzak melody of the Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun." The bellhop looked at me inquisitively and ventured, "German?"
"Ah, very good, very good. Khatemi, very good, very good." And so it went throughout my forays along streets and into shops, whether I was asking for directions or responding to a soldier's request for a cigarette light in the park. In a dozen pidgin-English encounters, "America, good; Khatemi, good."
In longer conversations with English-speaking intellectuals, businessmen and foreign policy officials who took my phone calls and agreed to meet with me, the message was more complicated and resentment over U.S. policy clearer, but the tone was always positive.
Potentially profound changes are underway in Iran. To the surprise of Iran's ruling religious hierarchy (and American intelligence organizations and experts), the Iranian people elected Khatemi to the presidency in May. A cleric in his mid-fifties, Khatemi had been dumped by hard-liners from his post as minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance in 1992. This only helped him in the election as he campaigned, in his words, "against authoritarianism, [and in] support for individual freedoms and the citizens' rights." Khatemi emphasized the need to develop a flourishing "civil society" -- political parties, trade unions and other nongovernmental organizations that express diverse aspirations and values.
All of this generates excitement and intellectual ferment in Tehran. Like Prague and Budapest in 1989, Iranian intellectuals are stirring. Sitting in a small, pleasant second-floor walk-up on a quiet Tehran side street, I listened as editors of a new political-cultural journal discussed future issues, the prospect of new magazines and newspapers being approved, and within the next two years, the formation of political parties.
"I was going to leave Iran for England if [Ali Akbar] Nateq Nouri [the conservative, pre-election favorite] won," volunteered a thirtysomething political economist. "Now I see great hope for Iran. If local elections are held for the first time ever, as Khatemi says, then political parties will follow, and Iran could be a model in the Islamic world."
"You must understand that for almost all of its history, Iran has been ruled by monarchs," a former high-ranking official explained, sitting in the living room of his large, open apartment. "The clergy were the solace of the masses. They had the connection to the people. When the revolution came, and when the internecine conflicts were sorted out in favor of the clergy, it was the first time that the people had ever had direct rule. And then when hardships came -- many of them the clergy's own making -- the people began to blame the clerical rulers. We went from monarchy to `hierocracy,' but the people want democracy. So in this election the people voted against these clerics."
The question is: What type of Islamic society and state will Iran be? Khatemi represents Islamic modernism, with an emphasis on political freedom, competence, reason and technical expertise over dogma. The new government's 22-member cabinet reflects this: The average age is 46; seven have PhDs; eight are engineers; the three clerics all have advanced theological degrees.
To sustain popular support, the government must address severe structural weaknesses in the economy. The commercial areas of central Tehran bustle with evening shoppers, and in wealthy North Tehran, the steel frames of countless new high-rise apartment buildings indicate a building boom. But inflation is a constant threat, and the economy is handicapped by heavy subsidies to both consumers and enterprises, an overvalued currency and a generally poor environment for private investment. Khatemi's principal economic strategy is political: Open up opportunities for expression and people will invest their talents and capital.
Powerful theocrats headed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and militant organizations like the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and a conservative parliament will contest much of Khatemi's agenda. Khatemi will be hard-pressed to achieve even partial success, but his rivals recognize that he has what they lack: public support.
While Khatemi campaigned on a domestic agenda, he suggested a new approach to international relations as well. If Iran seeks development, Khatemi wrote in one of Tehran's major daily newspapers on the eve of the election, "we must understand the western civilization and civilize in that way. . . . Unfortunately, nations like ourselves are still deprived of such an understanding, and our encounter with the West has generally been surface oriented. In other words, we have either worshiped or hated the West."
Normalization of relations with the West is clearly desired, but Iran will concentrate first on winning the confidence of its regional neighbors and the Islamic world. The government is frantically refurbishing Tehran's big hotels (neglected since the Shah's era) to host the gathering of the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) next month, which the Iranians see as a coming-out party for the Republic. The renovations looked behind schedule, prompting someone to say wryly, "The government will probably have to hire a South Korean construction firm to finish the job. But if it's not done before the OIC meeting, it will never be completed."
Iran has much to overcome with other Islamic states -- the difference between Shia and Sunni Islam, wariness of Iranian-backed subversion, perceived Persian arrogance -- but Khatemi's followers see the potential for a welcome re-integration of Iran into the region and the larger international community. Indeed, by reducing neighbors' fears, Iran hopes to induce them to reject the major U.S. military presence in the Gulf.
Knowing that the West views the Salman Rushdie affair as a symbol of Iranian hostility, I asked one of my contacts whether Rushdie, the British novelist whose writings prompted a standing death threat from Iranian fundamentalist foundation, would now be "liberated."
"Khatemi will not be able to take this on," he shrugged. "He has too many more important priorities that he cannot risk by outraging the hard-liners over Rushdie. Only the leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, could exert the necessary influence over the foundation, but he is not likely to do this."
The Iranians I met do not expect major breakthroughs in relations with the United States anytime soon. They recognize that the actions of both countries have engendered animus that 18 years of propaganda have turned into mutual demonology. In almost every discussion, the Iranians I met reminded me of the U.S. role in overthrowing the popular Mossadegh government in 1953, and the re-imposition of the Shah. For every example of Iranian malfeasance I served up, they had a counter-example of American offense. It is clear that both sides badly need a process by which the miasmic atmosphere can be cleared and a path to eventual normalization seen.
Statements by the new Iranian government, and interviews with American officials, suggest that progress could be made quietly on the issues of terrorism and non-disruption of Israeli-Palestinian relations. In his swearing-in speech, Khatemi declared that "any behavior or act which creates tension should be avoided." This modest proposition should be explored and tested.
Iran's efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction and long-range ballistic missiles constitute the toughest challenge. Potential acquisition of biological weapons and ballistic missiles is most worrisome because they are the hardest to block. Regarding nuclear weapons, the International Atomic Energy Agency has deemed Iran in compliance with its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Nonetheless, Iran's nuclear power program makes no economic sense and Iran has attempted to purchase equipment vital only for nuclear weapons production and little else.
The international community should do all it can to block Iran's access to weapons of mass destruction, but this denial strategy alone cannot succeed without addressing Iran's possible motives for wanting this capacity. Among them are insecurity stemming from Iraq, paranoia over possible aggression from Israel and concerns about U.S. determination to deny Iran a major role in Persian Gulf affairs.
Real threat reduction requires that Iran appreciate the dangerous costs and risks of proceeding with the production of weapons of mass destruction, as well as the benefits of forgoing these weapons. This means creation of a regional security regime in which Iran, its neighbors and the United States define mutually tolerable rules of the road. Were the U.S. political establishment prepared to come up with such an approach, it would find cautious receptivity -- at least among the Iranians I met. Indeed, Iranian intellectuals and the public at large have invested little thought and passion into the issues of weapons of mass destruction.
For the foreseeable future, Iran will be an Islamic state with values and practices often anathema, even dangerous, to the West. If the aim of U.S. policy is to seek changes in Iranian behavior, that policy must be adaptable itself. The United States says it is prepared to conduct official dialogue with Iran, but repairing a relationship this pathological will require a more subtle process of gesture-for-gesture, adjustment-for-adjustment. Unfortunately, Congress's sanctions-only policy precludes this kind of conditional engagement, and instead demands that Iran change its character, policies and image so fundamentally that engaging with it will become politically risk-free.
When I asked a foreign ministry official whether Iran would be prepared to allow greater nongovernmental dialogue with Americans if Washington did the same, he responded, "You have come to Iran and seen for yourself. You called me and though I did not know who you were, I invited you to my office for this discussion. You can see in our newspapers that along with the hostile propaganda toward the United States, we also acknowledge your achievements and report on the good things. This does not happen [in coverage of Iran] in the United States. How are we to prepare both sides for a better future if we do not begin a dialogue, at least among intellectuals, if not yet governments?"
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company