March 6, 1998
It has been nearly twenty years since the Islamic revolution toppled Iran's pro-Western government of the Shah. Since then, U.S.-Iran relations have been virtually frozen. But recent events, most notably the election of President Khatami, may signal a change in Iran's policies. Following a report from Iran, Charles Krause and guests discuss the future of U.S.-Iran relations.
JIM MACEDA: These are the scenes that are only too familiar to Americans: Cries of down with America and death to America, and death to the great Satan's ally, Israel. But, 19 years after the Islamic revolution, change in Iran is creeping in. You can see it in the streets and shops of Tehran, where, these days, women seem more interested in fashionable shoes than in anti-American slogans; where young couples, all born since the revolution, dare to show affection in public; once a jailable offense, authorities now turn a blind eye. Raised on satellite TV, illegal but tolerated here, and on smuggled Hollywood videos, this new generation sounds different too.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
March 6, 1998
A discussion on the future of U.S.-Iran relations.
Is it time to renew dialogue with Iran?
December 15, 1997
President Khatami calls for a dialogue with the West.
May 26, 1997
Mohammad Khatami is elected president of Iran .
January 30, 1997
The State Department's annual report on human rights violations .
March 13, 1996
A summit on terrorism is held in Egypt .
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of the Middle East.
Iranian Embassy in Canada
News, views and information on Iran from NetIran.
A new generation.
IRANIAN WOMAN: America very good, very good.
IRANIAN WOMAN: I love to come to America, very good.
IRANIAN MAN: All of Iranians like USA, USA people, but our government has a quarrel between your government, but Iranians like your people.
JIM MACEDA: And, in a country where the voting age is 15 and the majority of the population is under 20, Iran's powerful youth has put its hopes in this man. Mohammad Khatami, a moderate, highly-educated clergyman, Khatami ran for president last May on a platform of "Iran first, then Islam." He won by a landslide over his conservative opponent. He has promised more rights, more freedom, and a better life within the Islamic system, and so far his supporters remain hopeful.
MAHDI TAMSHEDI, Law Student: Mr. Khatami is the most popular man in the country. It's clear the people support him. People want their aspirations to be realized, and we are hopeful because of the positive things he has been able to do already.
Iran under President Khatami.
JIM MACEDA: Under Khatami, Iran is trying to improve its international "outlaw" image. When it recently chaired the World Islamic Summit in Tehran, Iran embraced its former enemies, and America's friends, like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. And it has moved to relax its severe Islamic laws. Newspapers and magazines, once banned, are back. Even American authors, for so long the epitome of evil, now fill Tehran's book shops. There is even American pop music on Radio Tehran. With all the good feeling in the streets, few believed, at least in private, that it would be long before political relations warmed as well.
And in December, at the conclusion of the Islamic Summit, Khatami dropped the first bomb. "I hope that in the future," he said,"I can have a dialogue and talk with the people of America, and I hope that will not take long." It did not. Only weeks later, in an interview with CNN, Khatami appealed for a crack in the wall of mistrust between Iran and the United States and called for low-level, unofficial contacts between the two countries. Almost 17 years after the American hostages were released from this U.S. embassy in Tehran, mistrust on both sides still runs deep. Ataollah Mohajerani, Minister of Culture and President Khatami's chief spokesman, denies U.S. charges that Iran thinks a nuclear weapon supports terror or acts to sabotage the Middle East peace process. And even this most liberal voice in Khatami's cabinet calls direct talks with the United States premature, if not impossible.
ATAOLLAH MOHAJERANI: (speaking through interpreter) When our people look at the U.S. government, they see constant intervention. They see support for a despotic Shah. They see plundering in various fields, economically and politically, for their own interests, and even after the revolution they have never chased intervening in the affairs of this country, with economic sanctions and a propaganda war, we cannot trust America, and the signs have worsened during the Clinton administration.
JIM MACEDA: Iranian government officials say they are looking for a goodwill gesture, like Iran's effort in freeing U.S. hostages from Lebanon, never matched, they say, by America. The freeing-up of billions of dollars of Iran's assets, frozen in U.S. banks, they say, would be a good first step. Iran's foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, insists that, until the U.S. side offers such a signal, all calls for serious dialogue ring empty.
KAMAL KHARRAZI: They are using all of their instruments to put Iran in a corner, to isolate Iran. And this is a policy, the policy of containment, means like that. And that is why they make allegations, I guess, you know. That is why they intervene in internal, our internal affairs. So far, I don't see any change in their behavior. There have been some words, but words are not enough. We should see deeds.
JIM MACEDA: But Iran has pressing reasons to end the diplomatic standoff. Economically, Iran's isolation has hurt, $30 billion in debt, with inflation running over 20 percent a year, and unemployment some 35 percent, Iran's standard of living has dropped almost 1/3 since the fall of the Shah. Iran's population, which will double in the next 20 years, wants good jobs, not more economic frustration. That's one reason why Mehrnoosh, and Fahrid, like many post-revolutionary Iranians, see Iran and America as true friends one day sharing common values.
MEHRNOOSH: Iranian society is becoming a political society. That means that the young people want something and want to show their feelings. Young people want to live. They want life- they want to live, that's a normal thing.
JIM MACEDA: Mehrnoosh, an advertising executive, is a pioneer for women's rights in a country dominated by men. Fahrid, a struggling artist, wants more freedom of expression. They both voted for Mohammad Khatami and for change.
JIM MACEDA: What kind of change specifically do you want to see?
MEHRNOOSH: To have the right to have different political parties like that, to have non-governmental organizations, for example, the Association for Artists, the Association for Women, the little things that could be changed in Iran, to have our mayor, to vote for our mayor. I want things like that.
JIM MACEDA: It sounds like you want democracy.
Conflicts between President Khatami and the clergy.
JIM MACEDA: But Khatami's calls for political parties and freedom of choice have not gone down well with Iran's right-wing clergy. The keepers of the revolution see any change as a threat to their power. Khatami, as president, still must report to this man, Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, whose supporters blame America and Israel for every evil on earth, and who took to the streets late last year when a few liberal voices, led by Ayatollah Montazeri, a respected theologian, dared suggest that the supreme leader was unqualified and should step down. In a wave of violent demonstrations, one of President Khatami's followers was beaten and his offices ransacked by an angry mob. Other dissidents were jailed. Western observers agree Iran is now at a crossroads, it must decide between two paths, one familiar, led by the conservative Khameini and his anti-American clergy, the other, towards reform, embodied by Iran's moderate president, calling, however cautiously, for dialogue with the West. Khameini has the power, but Khatami, the people, and the outcome is anyone's guess.