June 22, 1998
Iran knocked the U.S. out of contention in the World Cup Sunday in a dramatic game that ended 2-1. The match started with gestures of good will on both sides. After this background report, Margaret Warner talks to a panel about the prospects of warming relations between Iran and the U.S.
MARGARET WARNER: For more now we are joined by Geoffrey Kemp of the Nixon Center in Washington, who served on the National Security Council staff in the Reagan administration. He went back to Iran in February to attend a conference on Persian Gulf security; Robin Wright, a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, she has written frequently about Iran and was there last month; and James Reston, Jr., an author who was in Iran in March, his piece on Iran's soccer team is in this month's issue of the Washington magazine, Capitol Style. Welcome all. Are you surprised at this reaction we just saw on the streets of Tehran?
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
June 22, 1998
A background report on the soccer match and warming relations between the U.S. and Iran.
March 6, 1998
A discussion on the effects of President Khatami's election.
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.
JAMES RESTON, JR., Author: Absolutely not. We had that kind of reaction in November, and I think this is one step farther, the reaction-I mean, I was told by people talking, the people in Tehran this morning, that this was the first time in 20 years that the whole city has stayed up until the morning, and very few people are going to work today.
Politics or sports?
MARGARET WARNER: How do you explain it, Robin? Is this about beating the U.S., or is this about winning a game?
ROBIN WRIGHT, Los Angeles Times: It's about a lot of things. First of all, these are two countries that were once at odds with each other. Now they were on the soccer field as equals. And Iran came back after years of protesting or claiming that the United States was trying to dominate it and determine its future, and the Iranians came out ahead and determined their own future. But I think more fundamentally it reflects the change in Iran, the fact that, first of all, the majority of the population is now under 25, and it is youth that is defining a lot of things, whether it's the interest in soccer, or the political future of the country. They're the ones who put President Khatami in power, because the youth from the age of 15 vote in Iran. And finally I think that soccer in many ways shows how Iran has begun to settle down. Immediately after the revolution there wasn't any soccer. There wasn't that kind of competition. Everything western and many of the traditional sports and activities were banned. Today they're coming back, and I think it reflects the fact that the revolution has begun to go into a period of normalcy.
MARGARET WARNER: When you were there, did you sense this sort of political dimension to this?
JAMES RESTON, JR.: Absolutely. This is all about politics. It is much more interesting as a political story than it is as a sporting story, although that was a wonderful, magnificent match yesterday. But had Iran lost, I think it would have been far less interesting today for the diplomatic and the political ramifications.
MARGARET WARNER: Did the players you talked to, though, when you talked to one of the former coaches-they seem to change coaches frequently but the then coach--was beating the U.S. particularly important?
A game that inspired great passion.
JAMES RESTON, JR.: These players are incredibly impressive. And the pressure that was on there was absolutely extraordinary. I mean, not only did they have to play the game well but they carried the dignity of Iran and also the dignity of Islam onto that field. They were intensely aware of that. And I think what was really interesting about the U.S. coach's reaction to this was he said he feared the passion, that passion could cut both ways, and he thought that the Iranian players were going to collapse under this passion; they didn't.
MARGARET WARNER: How do you explain the passion we saw, I guess not only on the field but afterwards and among Iranians over this?
GEOFFREY KEMP, Nixon Center: And it's worth pointing out this was among Iranians worldwide. This is one thing that brought them altogether. There were a lot of expatriate Iranians in that stadium from Europe and North America, rich Iranians, who hate the regime but nevertheless cheered the team. I think that it's also a reflection of a resurgence of Iranian nationalism. Don't forget the revolution, when it first came into effect, was preaching an Islamic revolution that cuts across nationalist borders-was meant to embrace the Arab world. We're back to the days now where-I mean, it's Iran for Iranians and this nationalism is being reflected in this case through soccer, but it could, and I think it will in the future be reflected in other ways. Iran is setting out a claim for itself, and it will do deals with its neighbors. It will do deals with the United States but for essentially reasons of state, rather than reasons of ideology.
Iran's government is showing signs of opening up.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, as Robin pointed out earlier, in the days of the Ayatollah Khomeini, you would never even have had a match like this even occur, I mean, soccer, in general, much less meeting the U.S. on a field. Explain the thinking of the government in even allowing this to happen.
GEOFFREY KEMP: Well, first, the population has doubled since the time of the Shah. Second, as Robin pointed out, it's now a very young population. It's also a relatively well educated population. They know-they know what they're missing, and they are well aware of how soccer was adored and loved in the days of the Shah. They are a very good team by Asian standards. It's something for the young people to latch onto and express their emotions. And I believe that the conservative elements of the regime were worried that this might have got out of hand yesterday in the form of celebrations that could essentially spill over into protests against the conservative elements in the regime, who are essentially still repressing them.
MARGARET WARNER: When you were over there, did you find this concern?
JAMES RESTON, JR.: This is the most wonderful irony about this whole event here, but what the authority-the Iranian authorities feared most was an Iranian victory. I mean, that is extraordinary, and the other thing that I found extraordinary about it was this great joy being brought into what is essentially a joyless society. You know, I mean, the joy I think in Iran now is basically behind closed doors. The public faces around that you see on the street is glum and joyless. And then suddenly you have this incredible event of sport that brings such ecstasy to the society, and how does the regime control that kind of national ecstasy? I mean, as a writer I just love this irony.
MARGARET WARNER: Are we seeing-is the government being forced to or finding itself allowing liberalization in other parts of the cultural or social sphere, other than just soccer?
ROBIN WRIGHT: Oh, absolutely. And I think one of the things that we tend to forget is that President Khatami was not the leader of change; he was the by-product of change. And there was an overwhelming sentiment that if there wasn't some kind of change, that this revolution actually would face the danger of an implosion.
MARGARET WARNER: Why?
ROBIN WRIGHT: Well, because there weren't the freedoms, because people were feeling so restricted and angry, and the fact that they'd gone through a prolonged war with Iraq and with a loss of tens of thousands of lives, the fact that economically people were worse off than they were during the Shah's era; people had to work two and three jobs to survive. And so there was a desperate need for some kind of change and reform, and I think that's the kind of thing we saw yesterday-the right to be happy really is something-to believe in something besides Islam is very much still a party of society that is today, and will continue to be, whatever-whoever is in power. But the fact is there-there are options now. And that, I think, is really what we're seeing, the kind of change, and this plays out with the women. For example, there are 84 women's basketball teams in Tehran alone in five different leagues. Among women there were 200 women who ran 18 months ago for a 270-seat parliament, not just from the cities but from the rural areas. So that you see across the board youth, women, in all segments of society, some real fundamental changes.
The Clinton administration gets high marks for engaging Iran.
MARGARET WARNER: So what does this all add up to in terms of the US-Iranian relationship, if anything?
GEOFFREY KEMP: Oh, I think it's very important, and I would have to give the Clinton administration pretty high marks for how they've handled it since Khatami's election in May of '97 lowered the rhetoric, they made all sorts of gestures, the president's television announcement yesterday, the secretary of state's speech last week, statements by other senior administration officials all saying we would like to improve relations, we will lower the rhetoric. But, quite frankly, I think they've pushed the envelope about as far as they can, because the Iranian government refuses to have an official dialogue with the United States. The Iranian government is still engaged in activities that are very detrimental to American interests, to Israeli interests, and to the interests of our Arab allies, so-
MARGARET WARNER: You're talking about opposing the peace process, supporting terrorism.
GEOFFREY KEMP: Yes. Well, there have been improvements on some of these fronts. Basically these are-and the third issue, of course, is evidence that they are producing long-range missiles and are interested in nuclear weapons. Now, until these fundamental issues are addressed, there won't be any magnificent breakthrough, no meeting on the White House lawn. The problem is that Mr. Khatami controls the affection of the people. He has the support of the people. He does not control the guns. The bad guys control the instruments of power.
MARGARET WARNER: Meaning who?
President Khatami vs. the conservatives.
GEOFFREY KEMP: Meaning the conservatives who are fuming because of his election and the response he's got, that they control revolutionary guards, they control the Interior; they control the Justice Department; the control the intelligence services. And many of these bad things that the Iranians are still up to may be uncontrollable from Mr. Khatami's point of view. So until he establishes more authority and real power, you have a standoff, and that's dangerous.
MARGARET WARNER: What did you find in terms of what ordinary people you talked to felt about the US?
JAMES RESTON, JR.: I could not have been welcomed more warmly in the 12 days that I was there. I mean, I, in fact, extended my stay there five days because I was having such a warm and wonderful time. There is a huge discrepancy, in my view, between the rhetoric of both governments and the way in which both peoples are viewing this kind of thing. And I think we need to give more support to Khatami and the moderates there than we have. The timing of Albright's speech last week and the president at half-time is very good public relations, it seems to me. Had they not said anything, you know, I think America would have looked very sort of hostile and unresponsive to the overtures from Khatami.
Prospects for normalized relations between the U.S. and Iran.
MARGARET WARNER: Robin, how much does it matter what the people-the kinds of people James Reston talked to-what they think, what they want? I mean, in other words, do you agree with Geoff that it's basically that the president doesn't have the power now to improve relations with the U.S., or do you think that the prospects are betters?
ROBIN WRIGHT: I think the prospects have never been better. He still has a lot of obstacles, but even though some of the conservatives hold the reins of power over, for example, the ministry that controls the revolutionary guard, the fact is the majority of the revolutionary guard, the rank and file, actually voted for Khatami. They had to have had, because of the numbers, even though they were urged to do otherwise. And so when I think it comes down to it, Khatami is going to be able to come back and back and back at that overwhelming mandate when he won the election last year against-as a dark horse.
MARGARET WARNER: Is improving relations something he wants to spend that mandate on improving relations with the US?
ROBIN WRIGHT: Slowly, slowly. There's a saying in Persian. Everything's difficult, but everything is possible. And I think that because of the economic problems that his administration faces, that he really has to be part of a global economy. His oil industry really needs some of the equipment in the United States and the expertise in developing gas fields, oil fields, off shore and on, and that-so the relationship at least at a commercial level needs to be restored during his first year-first term, and he has three more years in that term. I think we'll see some kind of movement.
MARGARET WARNER: Briefly, do you agree the incentives are for him to move in this way?
GEOFFREY KEMP: The incentives are enormous because of the low price of gasoline and the runaway problems in Iran. The problem is in order to get that investment, he's not only got to get the American sanctions off his back-and they are hurting the Iranians right-he's also got to reform the Iranian economy, which is antiquated, corrupt, and needs massive structural overhaul. And that cannot be done on the cheap. It will cost him politically, and I don't think he yet has the power to do that.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, thank you all three very much.