OPENING A DOOR
December 15, 1997
Mohammed Khatemi, Iran's moderate, democratically-elected president, has called for a dialogue with the U.S. that could open doors that have been closed since the Shah was overthrown in 1979. But will Khatemi's actions be blocked by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iran's powerful theocracy? After a background report, a panel of experts analyze the president's remarks with Phil Ponce.
PHIL PONCE: We get three views now: Richard Murphy was Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs from 1983 to 1989--he's now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations; Kenneth Timmerman is publisher of the newsletter Iran Brief and executive director of the non-profit Foundation for Democracy in Iran, which monitors human rights and other activities in Iran. Said Arjomand is a professor of sociology at State University of New York at Stony Brook. He's a native of Iran and a U.S. citizen. He spent six weeks in Iran this spring. Gentlemen, welcome all. Mr. Murphy, first of all, the President says he's encouraged by what he's hearing from the Iranian president, and he says the American people should be encouraged. Are you encouraged?
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
December 15, 1997:
A background report on Iran's attempts to start a dialogue with the U.S.
May 26, 1997:
A panel discussion on the election of Iran's new leader Mohammed Khatemi.
January 30, 1997:
The U.S. State Department's 20th annual survey of human rights practices in 193 nations.
April 24, 1996:
House Speaker Newt Gingrich appoints a special committee to look into the Clinton administration's role in arms shipments from Iran to Bosnia.
March 13, 1996:
Twenty-nine leaders arrive at the Egyptian resort of Sharm El-Sheikh for a summit on ending terrorism in the Middle East.
Browse the Online NewsHour's Middle East Index.
An encouraging sign.
RICHARD MURPHY: I am. It was one further surprise to me, frankly, that the man who was--who won his massive electoral victory by a surprise vote has entered into the foreign policy arena, which a number of experts were saying he will have no say in; that's going to be the responsibility of the supreme guide, Khamenei.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Timmerman, are you encouraged by what's said?
KENNETH TIMMERMAN: Well, yes, I think it is encouraging. I would say that we're seeing right now a very strong split within the leadership, and there's really two ways of looking at this. Either Khamenei has decided--the supreme guide has said, look, I will take care of the hard-liners, I'll take care of the core constituents of the regime here at home, and then allow you, Mr. Khatemi, to be the smiling face to the West. That's one way of looking at it. The other way of looking at it is that there's a real profound split, and this is an honest and a sincere split, and they have very sincere differences of view.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Arjomand, speaking of sincerity, do you believe that the Iranian president is sincere in what he's saying?
SAID ARJOMAND: Oh, yes, there's no question that he's sincere. The problem always was that would he be undermined or contradicted by other clerics in the regime, and I think the timing of this declaration coming immediately after the Islamic conference, which he chaired for a number of days and with his meetings with the president and so forth, is very significant. It's the first time he's being assertive in foreign policy and challenging this assumption that he was going to leave that to the supreme leader and to others.
Who has the upper hand: Khatemi or the Ayatollah?
PHIL PONCE: How about the issue of power, Mr. Arjomand, who do you think has power right now? Does the President, or does the religious leader?
SAID ARJOMAND: Well, constitutionally, it's the religious leader who has the power, but if you go back just a couple of weeks, you can see that his position was challenged, he was attacked by Ayatollah Montazeri, the successor-designate of Khamenei until three months before his death, and by other senior ayatollahs. So he's--and there are a large number of statements--public statements in support of those ayatollahs. So he is--his position is shaken, and President Khatemi's position is very much enhanced as a result of this high profile in the conference. And so I think that right now the two of them do have considerable--it would be very hard for the leader to contradict President Khatemi and who I'm pretty sure has the support of the former president, Rafsanjani, as well, and this statement must have been cleared with the other--
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Timmerman, how about that? Do you think the current president cleared this statement with the religious leader before he made it?
KENNETH TIMMERMAN: No. I think what Prof. Arjomand said correct, that he cleared it with Former President Rafsanjani, and I think he's also correct when he points out the difference within the clergy, and we can't highlight this too much. There's an incredible fight going on inside the traditional clergy between Khamenei, the supreme leader, who represents this radical anti-Western, anti-American faction, which is--has a certain popularity, and another faction which says, look, enough is enough, let's get on with our lives, and let's have a regime and a government which is more democratic and more open to the West. The arrest of Ayatollah Montazeri, who had been the designated successor Khamenei, about a month ago, is extremely important. He's going to be put on trial for treason. At least that's what Khamsin had announced. If that happens, I think you could have an explosion inside Iran.
How should the U.S. respond?
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Murphy, at this point, how should the United States react?
RICHARD MURPHY: I think the United States should be cautiously positive. The President has a difficult time, our President. He's hemmed in by the law on sanctions that was passed last year. He has a Congress that would jump all over him, and if he appeared to give up the shop without getting a great return from Iran in terms of past grievances the United States has dwelt on all these years, but I think we are, after all, the great power, and we ought to be able to find ways to respond positively, cautiously but positively.
PHIL PONCE: And what kind of ways would you envision some kind of incentive, some kind of concession?
RICHARD MURPHY: I think that first there has to be a way to put the two sides together because what's needed really is to craft a package that--of signals, of gestures that Washington can take that will be taken--can make that will be taken seriously in Tehran and vice versa, and more coordination the better. A few months ago Washington did make a gesture in putting the organization, Mujahadin Helk, that's based in Iraq, on the terrorism list, and that was seen--that's an organization dedicated against Iran and the regime in Iran. And that gesture was appreciated in Tehran.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Timmerman, time for some kind of a carrot extended by the United States?
KENNETH TIMMERMAN: Well, I think Amb. Murphy has got it just about right--cautious optimism. We should wait and see. We should perhaps--we should certainly try to find ways of having a dialogue. I see nothing wrong with that. Up until now it has been the Iranian regime that hasn't wanted to speak to us. This is something new, and it could be significant. I'd really like to see whether they're going to allow Mr. Khatemi to pursue this dialogue with the United States.
Iran's ties to terrorism.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Arjomand, one of the things the United States has been concerned about and one of the things President Clinton alluded to was the issue of terrorism. To what extent is there still continuing evidence that the Iranian government is involved in exporting Islamic fundamentalism, for example?
SAID ARJOMAND: Well, I think the one very significant outcome of the conference was Iran's assurance to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other countries of the Middle East that really the export of the Islamic Revolution was over. He assured them that there was no threat from Iran to any of those countries, and that is, I think, a declaration that Iran is entering a new phase and the phase of revolution is behind, and that Iran wants to play the geopolitical game as a major regional--regional power, and so I would not--and I think there hasn't been any evidence of--much evidence of terrorism. Lately, they have not done it, and I think they clearly are going to give that up as part of the negotiations together incidentally with the threat--with their nuclear program--because I think Iran--if you think from their point of view--these are the only remaining chips. And as President Clinton likely said, that would be a major concern of the U.S. and that would be something that they could give up and they have said they would do it at the United Nations; they supported test ban, and this would be much easier to achieve through a dialogue with the Iranian government and much more difficult if Iran is isolated, if the U.S. isolates--continues to isolate Iran, because that would strengthen the hand of the radicals.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Timmerman, do you agree that Iran's exportation of terrorism is behind it?
KENNETH TIMMERMAN: Well, I think we need concrete gestures and concrete facts, not just statements. The Iranian regime has been saying for years that they don't export terrorism. They have called Lebanon's Hezbollah movement, which just about every other country in the world considers to be a terrorist movement, a national liberation movement involved in liberating the territory of Lebanon from foreign occupation. The regime in Tehran today, as we speak, is still engaged in shipping armaments, weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. They go through Syria. There have been 45 747 cargo loads' worth of weapons just this year alone. They're still engaged in shipping weapons into Afghanistan and getting involved in that civil war inside that country. They have been engaged even recently in assassinations in Pakistan against both Iranian dissidents and against Paki--Pakistani civilians. There's a very curious war going on in Pakistan between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, so I think we need really solid gestures, not just talk.
Iran: one of the keystones of the Gulf region.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Murphy, what's in it for the United States to have a better relationship with Iran?
RICHARD MURPHY: It's a major power in the region--60 million people, geo-strategic position, stride the main routes in--to Central Asia, to South Asia. It is a power, and it has always seen itself as the gulf's primary power. Part of the problem between us has been that we have become the regional hegemon. The United States is the primary force, military force in the area today, and Iran feels that's its role, to be the security guarantor for the gulf. Well, that's something that's going to take a lot of time to sort out.
PHIL PONCE: To what extent might the U.S.'s interest be motivated by business interests?
RICHARD MURPHY: Well, my impression is that American business, which is anxious to get on with development, for instance, in Central Asia, the oil business and looking at pipeline routes, yes, some of them would favor routes across Iran, because they're shorter, more economical. Some of them would favor trade with Iran, which was cut off in the course of the sanctions act last year. But I don't get the impression that business is pushing our government around very hard or very far at this point in time.
A new sense of freedom.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Arjomand, what is life in Iran like these days? Is there less government control? Is there more personal freedom?
SAID ARJOMAND: Well, I was there in the spring and there was a lot difference as compared to three, four years ago in the fact that the war was definitely over and the morale was much better, and I think all this is--after the election of President Khatemi is all the more the case, and I think there is a sense of people that for the first time they can get organized and make a difference. This would apply to women; the middle classes; and other intellectuals, other groups, university students, who are I think beginning to get organized. They know it is hard but it can come off, and for the first time there is an optimism that wasn't there before.
PHIL PONCE: And a follow up question to that, Mr. Arjomand, is there an ingrained hostility in the Iranian people towards the United States, or is there a differentiation being made between feelings toward the government and feelings toward the American people?
SAID ARJOMAND: Well, that is a convenient phrase. That's the distinction between the government and people of the United States, which the spokesman of the Iranian government had been making, but I think at the popular level, both in my judgment and I think the reports by anyone who visited Iran, there wasn't any animosity towards the United States. And the point made earlier in the program was that indeed there's considerable discontent with clerical control, and I think that extends to their foreign policy of isolating Iran, so I would say there is support, yes.
PHIL PONCE: Gentlemen, we'll have to leave it there. Thank you all very much.