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 Kahmenei and Iran's powerful theocracy? After a background report, a panel of experts analyze the president's remarks with Phil Ponce.
PHIL PONCE: Last May, Mohammed Khatemi became Iran's first popularly elected President. The 54 year-old cleric won a surprising and overwhelming victory. His win may suggest deep discontent among many Iranians, especially the young, with the Islamic fundamentalist government that has ruled the country since 1979. That's when fundamentalists overthrew the shah's pro-American government. In his campaign, Khatemi talked about a more open and tolerant society and even hinted at better relations with the West.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
December 15, 1997:
A panel discusses Iran's offer to begin 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.
Iran: a land where clerics rule.
But Iran is a theocracy, and according to the country's constitution, its supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, officially holds most of the power. Even so, last May' election as a milestone, the freest and the most competitive since the revolution 18 years ago. And last week, there was another indication of Iran's willingness to open up--a summit of 55 Islamic nations, the first international gathering of this dimension since the revolution. The summit, which drew 28 heads of state, prime ministers, and crown princes, served as a way for Iran to forge ties with countries long wary of its 1979 Islamic revolution. It also brought together nations that had been at war with each other in the past decades, including Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
But last week's speeches from Iran's top two and religious leaders highlighted divisions that remain in the ruling circles. The current Ayatollah denounced the West and the United States. The president, meanwhile, said Iran could learn things from the West. The signs of a split in the leadership are the most dramatic since the clerics took over in 1979. Led by a little known exiled Shiite, Ayatollah Ruholla Khamenei, the clerics took power and formed a theocratic government that labeled the United States "The Great Satan."
Iran's relations with the U.S. ended after the 1979 hostage crisis.
Khamenei soon became a household word in the United States when revolutionary students --with support of the ruling clerics--took over the American embassy in Tehran. The students held 52 hostages there for more than a year. The two nations never resumed diplomatic relations, and the United States has tried to isolate Iran on the grounds it sponsors international terrorism and may be developing nuclear weapons. But yesterday President Khatemi made what's being seen as the most conciliatory remarks by an Iranian leader since the falling out with the United States. During a news conference in Tehran he declared his respect for what he called "the great people of the United States," and added that he hoped to engage them in a thoughtful conversation soon. He said, though, that U.S. leaders have fallen behind the times, and the U.S. is still trying to impose its will on the rest of the world. Today, President Clinton had this reaction.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: I would like nothing better than to have a dialogue with Iran, as long as we can have an honest discussion of all the relevant issues. We remain concerned about the. sponsorship of terrorism, about violent attacks on the peace process, about development or acquisition of weapons of mass destruction, and we will continue to be concerned about those things. But I was quite encouraged by the president's statement, and I think the American people should be.