Al-Ahram Weekly
7 - 13 September 2000
Issue No. 498
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Trying times for Khatami

By Azadeh Moaveni

President Mohamed Khatami's Labour Day address to Iranian-Americans provided a gentle, but firm, "reality check" for a diaspora that had hoped the new president would, at the very least, warm the relationship between their adopted nation and their homeland.

"We share something in our hearts: Iran," Khatami told a gathering at the kick-off of the Iranian delegation's visit to the United Nations Millennium Summit. But after a lukewarm speech that touched on the politics of oil, the ailing Iranian economy and a variety of issues that neither the president nor his audience seemed very concerned with, both the delegation and the Iranian Americans left the UN building completely unmoved by the exchange.

But while Khatami's speech disappointed, and cooled expectations that his visit would initiate significant progress in relations with the US, Iranian Americans got a taste of the Khatami Iranians know so well -- a leader sometimes focused on abstractions who routinely dashes expectations in a mysterious at detached fashion.

"Mr. President, open the economic doors to Iran," said Jahangir Ghaznavi, a prominent US-based businessman to a roar of applause. Khatami, however, devoted the economy portion of his speech to a nationalistic reading of the role of oil historically, and ended by cautioning young Iranian-Americans "not to live in the past."

In contrast to the president's at best neutral address, last week's visit by Parliament Speaker Mehdi Karroubi to an international conference of parliamentarian's was perhaps one of the most productive visits of an Iranian government official to the United Nations in years.

Karroubi met with American oil company executives to discuss sanctions, and spent fifteen minutes in the hallways of the Metropolitan Museum of Art engaged in fierce debate with no less than a member of the American Senate. The profoundly important exchange -- which Karroubi described upon arrival in Iran as a chance encounter -- represents the first time since Khatami's presidency that a prominent Iranian politician has met with American government officials.

As much as the unambitious Khatami took Iranian-Americans by surprise, the upbeat mood of those in his delegation was equally surprising to observers. With international speculation that Iran's reform movement has died an early death, the cool confidence of the Iranian entourage was an interesting indication that the damage to the reform movement in the last two months is neither as serious nor as shocking as has been perceived.

One Iranian analyst close to the reformists in the government said the Supreme Leader's unprecedented letter this August to parliament, banning debate on a draft press bill, was a move reformists had been aware of in advance and prepared for. "It will also not be the last such incident," the analyst said.

An Iranian pro-reform member of parliament in New York, also brushed aside Iranian-American suggestions that the reform movement has been resolutely crushed by the hard-liners: " The conservatives are only willing to tolerate change they can control," he said. "The turbulence you see is more about power than a great ideological divide."

Officials close to the delegation said they expect that a key element of the week's visit will be developments relating to the postponed appeal verdict in the trial of 13 Iranian-Jews sentenced for spying for Israel.

With the cancellation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's visit to the summit, the re-establishment of Iranian-Egyptian ties appears stalled for the time being. But Iranians close to the delegation said Iran and Algeria are expected to renew their relations soon. What the week will hold for Iran's ties with the world is difficult to foretell, but no doubt there will be competing pressures for Khatami's attention. An awkward moment in the lobby of the president's hotel suggested as much, when Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam organisation and the Iranian parliament's only Jewish MP stood check and jowl. What times for Iran's president!


Related stories:
Backs to the wall 31 August - 6 September 2000
A cause without a rebel 17 - 23 August 2000

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