4 - 10 November 1999
Issue No. 454
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Khatami lays a wreath on the tomb of French writer Emile Zola as he tours the Pantheon Museum in Paris
Détente and its discontentsBy Azadeh Moaveni
It might not have been the ideal time or place for subtle messages. Iranian President Mohamed Khatami left behind a rancorous face-off with his domestic opponents to visit a country not known for its temperate political rhetoric, and received an appropriately fractious welcome in France -- exiled opposition groups turned out in force to protest his presence and security concerns nearly precluded a speech intended to demonstrate his willingness to engage the outside world. But amidst the furor, there were signs that some of the hints were picked up.
While the French at times found it more convenient to describe the visit in pragmatic and economic terms, Khatami's careful gestures clearly suggested that he had headed for Paris -- at not inconsiderable domestic risk -- to make his intentions plain to the West. In a nod to his critics abroad, he seemed to be asking for patience -- with his country's nascent democracy, but also with the constraints on his ability to change what exiles, Western governments, and he himself find objectionable about Iran.
Though less lofty concerns, notably impending oil and gas deals, should have taken precedence in the three-day visit, Khatami asked to visit the Pantheon, where luminaries of the French republic are honoured. He laid a wreath on the tomb of Marie Curie, the only female buried there, and in a speech outside evoked Montesqieu. In an Iran where students and clerics alike are on trial, and women quietly struggle to turn their modest opportunities to work into more perceptible, personal freedoms, such gestures, made during only the second Iranian presidential visit to a Western country since 1979, speak volumes.
They were lost on the Mojahedin-Khalq protesters, who eagerly waited outside for the opportunity to pelt the president with tomatoes and paint-bombs. After recently losing the sanctuary it enjoyed in Washington, Mojahedin-Khalq has subsequently made France the centre of its activities. The Paris-based opposition, which most observers believe enjoys little support inside Iran, campaigned vigorously against what it calls "the terrorist, religious dictatorship of Iran".
A separate rally drew hundreds to a French courthouse for a demonstration protesting the arrest of 13 Iranian Jews charged with spying for Israel, a sore spot that French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine said could stymie Khatami's delicate Western rapprochement. Khatami said the Jews would receive a fair trial; however the matter lies in the hands of the Iranian judiciary, over which the Iranian president has little control.
Though the courthouse demonstration remained pacific, protesters who constantly dogged Khatami's entourage were less reserved. Mobile phones in hand, and prodigiously organised, the exiles managed to disrupt the visit, despite a stifling French security presence that the leftist newspaper Libération said would make anyone think "Paris was being threatened with a coup d'état". Hundreds of Iranians were turned away at the airport, Mojahedin activists were arrested in pre-dawn raids, and France reinstated border controls to prevent an influx of protesters from abroad from descending on Paris. Interior Minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement said that the drastic measures were a response to "serious, precise threats".
Even with such a security apparatus in place, Khatami's address to the UNESCO general assembly, an ostensible cornerstone of his visit planned since the president's "dialogue of civilisations" reached sound-byte popularity in the West, was cancelled twice before finally taking place on Friday. Some French intellectuals criticised the delays, saying that Khatami's speech was supposed to be a manifestation of the openness he represents on the Iranian scene. The centrist French daily Le Monde was similarly displeased, remarking that "UNESCO officials were well-placed to know that the visit of an Iranian official would pose such problems".
Vedrine deflected criticism of the visit by French human rights groups, saying that the condition of human rights in Iran would best be improved by talking with Iranian moderates. He told the National Assembly that "It is difficult to see how democracy will progress more quickly in countries that buy Boeings rather than Airbus."
While France plays a key role in Khatami's wider goals of reestablishing relations with the West, warmer Iranian-European relations might encourage an Iran-US reconciliation as well. In the absence of direct contact between the United States and Iran, "talks with the Europeans could be extremely helpful in clarifying Iran's position on controversial subjects [such as non-proliferation and terrorism]," Gary Sick, a research scholar and Iran observer now at Columbia University, told Al-Ahram Weekly . "These talks could be helpful and accelerate the process of US-Iran discussions in the future."
Economic ties could put additional pressure on Washington as well, said Suzanne Maloney, an Iran analyst affiliated with the Brookings Institution, an American think tank. "There is a concern that strong European-Iranian relations will permanently sideline the US oil industry," she said.
Impatient French companies have not been holding out for political liberalisation, nor did their activities hinge much on the commercial dimension of Khatami's visit. French Total was the first oil-firm to defy US secondary sanctions with a $2 billion deal in 1997, and French wheat exporters are hungrily eyeing the Iranian market. Nonetheless, deals were made highlighting the economic rapport engendered by Khatami's talks with French businessmen. Energy and transport firm Alston received a $201 million order for 100 trains, and Airbus took an order for four airliners.
For Khatami, accused by his opponents of subsuming economic reforms to political and social ones, this dimension of his trip was important for domestic purposes. Tangible development, he has tried to argue, requires movement in both the political and economic arenas. "It is impossible to achieve economic progress, except in a democratic and lively society," he asserted in an August public address.
While the conservative press predictably groused over the "high walls of mistrust" that have yet to crumble, pro-reform newspapers spoke to the popular sentiments Khatami's UNESCO address invoked. The opportunity to feel "pride and dignity" in their leader has eluded Iranians since the revolution. "People are used to seeing the opposite of the developed world, the West, here in their government, even visually," said an Iranian analyst associated with the banned Iran Nation Party.
Khatami undoubtedly bolstered his domestic popular support by appearing on the diplomatic stage as a worldly man of letters. Now back at home, he must gear up to be a man of action.