Khatami Fears Tug of War Will Open Iran to Extremists
By ROBIN WRIGHT
Los Angeles Times
September 9, 2000
UNITED NATIONS -- President Mohammad Khatami warned Thursday that growing
polarization over the direction of Iran's post-revolutionary society may
trigger new confrontations and violence and has already forced his government
to slow the pace of change.
In a sobering assessment of Iran's internal strife, Khatami pledged
that he still stands for sweeping reforms in the Islamic theocracy. But
he warned that public demands for change "should not rise beyond what
"The people have a certain understanding of their rights, which
may be more than the government can offer right now," he said, with
exceptional candor, to a small group of reporters at the U.N. Millennium
In a message that will echo back home, he also cautioned that reformers
"have to be careful not to lose what we have achieved" so far.
Because of serious differences between rival camps, Iran's leadership
cannot leave society "in a state that is vulnerable to various forces
that endanger peace and security," he added at a later news conference.
The charismatic Iranian leader, whose upset election three years ago
led to widespread expectations of political and social openings, even indicated
that he may be only a transition figure as the strategic and oil-rich country
struggles to move from a revolutionary society toward a new form of Islamic
It has been an escalating battle to achieve those reforms. During the
past six months, the two most outspoken elements in the pro-Khatami reform
movement--young people, who account for about 65% of Iran's population
of 70 million, and the independent media--have faced increasing repression
at the hands of conservatives and surrogate vigilantes.
Twenty reformist papers have been silenced and many journalists imprisoned.
Last month, Iran witnessed a week of unrest in the western city of Khorramabad
after conservative vigilantes attacked two leading reformist intellectuals
who had flown in to address a national summit of student leaders. The two
were eventually forced to flee back to Tehran, the capital, without giving
their speeches. Sporadic clashes during the national student conference
left dozens injured and only petered out last weekend, according to local
The Iranian president conceded his own frustration at the clampdown
on the media by the nation's conservative judiciary and said he hoped that
the papers eventually will be allowed to reopen. But he said he would not
invoke powers beyond his constitutional mandate to respond, implying--but
not formally charging--that others were working outside the law.
At the same time, he acknowledged the dangers of failing the 70% majority
that elected him in 1997 and went on to elect reformist city councils in
1999 and a reformist majority in parliament earlier this year.
"Any effort that would lead to failure of reform will lead to a
disheartening of the people and pave the way for destruction of the will
of the people--and for extremist groups to enter the scene," he said
at the news conference.
"Extremism in any form, in any direction, is unwanted, whether
it's in the name of freedom or of suppressing the rights of the people,
so we must create a balance," he said.
Khatami's admission that his reform agenda is in trouble was a stark
contrast to his other appearance at the U.N. two years ago, when he heralded
a new era of openness and democracy in the Islamic Republic. This year
he stressed that reform did not mean "a denial of the past" or
"an overthrow of the system" and said it was unfair to compare
two or three centuries of democracy in the West with countries such as
In line with the gradual thaw between Iran and the United States--which
has played out in New York this week with President Clinton and Secretary
of State Madeleine Albright both making highly visible efforts to listen
to the Iranian leader's two U.N. speeches--Khatami called for a formal
apology for the CIA's role in a 1953 coup. That U.S. support helped topple
a nationalist leader and allowed Iran's pro-Western shah, Mohammed Reza
Pahlavi, to return and rule for a quarter-century more.
"If the Americans agree to do this, it will be a very big step,"
In a more sweeping statement that could herald an eventual thaw toward
Israel too, Khatami said his government's "detente policy is open
to all countries of the world. We don't welcome animosity or tension with
The Iranian president, who is holding about 40 bilateral meetings with
other world leaders during the U.N. summit, said President Vladimir V.
Putin wants to strengthen Russia's strategic relationship with Iran. Tehran
welcomes the overture because of shared interests in the regional problems
of the Caspian Sea, Central Asia and the Caucasus Mountains, and the potential
for technical and industrial cooperation.
Closer relations also would "pave the way to marginalize external
powers" trying to meddle in the region, he said, without specifying