FT interview: Mohammad Khatami
Mohammad Khatami, former Iranian president, interview by Guy Dinmore and Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Chicago, Sunday, September 3, 2006 (partial transcript as translated by the FT) Published: September 5 2006
Financial Times: What are you hoping to achieve from your visit to the US? Nine years ago, you talked about “the wall of mistrust”. Is this wall bigger now? Do you see the danger of a military confrontation between the two countries?
Mohammad Khatami: I said that the mistrust between Iran and the US had a historical background and that we had to deal with it thoughtfully. The US is an important and influential country in the world, and Iran is also an important and influential country in the Middle East. This mistrust can create problems for both sides and the whole region.
I think some effective steps were taken [by Iran], and the [Bill] Clinton administration reciprocated some steps. But these steps [by the US] were little. If they were continued, they could lead to a more appropriate situation for both sides, which regrettably did not happen.
In the post-Clinton time, for various reasons, misunderstandings increased, while some US policies on Iran and the Middle East fuelled suspicions in Iran and created more problems in the Middle East.
I hope this situation would not lead to any violent confrontation, which would not benefit Iran, the world and the region. I still believe the problems should be resolved thoughtfully and wisely, with reliance on common interests and goals, which can be found. The best solution is talks. I got happy when the recent proposal was made to Iran for multilateral talks to include both Europe and the US. The fact that both Iran and the US accepted to hold talks opened a window of hope. But unfortunately a big mistake was made by putting a condition for starting the talks. This fuelled suspicions about the very willingness to hold talks. I still believe that if the same proposal is put forward without precondition, it can prevent probable problems in the future.
I don’t think conditions are ready for any attack against Iran. It would be a miscalculation by the US to think attacking Iran would resolve any problems. Any attack will cause trouble for Iran, the region and the world. I hope wisdom and thought will dominate emotions and not to see miscalculations and mistakes. As miscalculations about Iraq have created problems for the US, the Iraqi nation and the region, if the same miscalculation is repeated about Iran, the damages for everyone will definitely be much more than Iraq.
I don’t think public opinion in the US will allow the US to get involved in more troubles, which would cost American tax-payers and those who want to have a safe and secure life in the US.
FT: Going back to the time your government had some kind of engagement with Mr Clinton’s administration, how much do you see yourself responsible for missing opportunities and preventing the current crisis?
MK: No one can say all his work has been 100% correct, or better work couldn’t be done. However, the complication of the issue was so much that the mutual problems couldn’t be expected to be resolved overnight. I think even if we made any mistake in tactics, we certainly had the right strategy. It paved the ground for more direct relations in different fields like sports and art and more people exchanges. Some comments and confrontations between the officials were also moderated. However, I think time was not sufficient. Regrettably, appropriate policies were not adopted after Mr Clinton. This not only damaged all the grounds prepared before, but it worsened the suspicions between the two countries, which have continued till now. But one should not lose hope.
FT: You had some responsibility on the nuclear issue for eight years. Are you absolutely sure some elements would not want to a develop nuclear weapons programme?
MK: Definitely! I am familiar with the issue and I know the supreme leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] who determines policies and strategies is definitely against it and has called any efforts to produce and maintain atomic weapons haram [forbidden in Islam]. I strongly say that no official individuals and organisations, with determining roles and responsibilities, think of producing atomic weapons.
FT: As a critic of the Iranian government, do you think it should suspend enrichment and start talks?
MK: Voluntary suspension was carried out during my term, we had good talks [with the EU-3 of UK, France and Germany]. Naturally a lot of time was needed to reach a conclusion. I believed that if we achieve our rights later, it is better than facing a crisis… The whole system was convinced to carry it out until the end of my term, but I think Europe could have taken quicker steps and more confidence building after our showing of good will. But because of European hesitations and regrettably due to pressure on Europe from outside, Europe failed to use that chance and created this suspicion in the whole Iranian leadership that our voluntary suspension would not only not resolve any problem but would be a pretext for those who want Iran to give up its rights completely to carry out their policies. For this reason that relative confidence building was damaged. Now I believe nothing has really changed. There is nothing of utmost concern. Having a cascade of 164 centrifuges cannot provide sufficient enriched material for anything, let alone a bomb. It will only help complete the experiments of our engineers. Now all the problems and concerns that we have and they have can be dealt with, and talks with patience without preconditions are accessible. Europe, the IAEA and the US should not miss this chance of trying talks… I still believe the problem can be resolved through fair talks and based on good will.
FT: What have been the consequences of President Bush’s policies on the “war on terror” and what do you think about his use of the term Islamo-fascism? Not to link this with the term you used in Iran, but you also warned against the danger of fascism coming out of populism.
MK: I don’t like to repeat inappropriate, impolite terms used against Islam. I do respect the status of words. Islamic fascism is as wrong as if we talk about Christian or Buddhist fascism. The spirit of Islam, Christianity and other religions is in no way compatible with what represents fascism and Nazism. I am really sorry to say that fascism was created in Europe and the modern world as anti-semitism was created in the west and modern world. You see a coexistence of Jews and Muslims for centuries when hatred never dominated their relations. You see today Muslims and Arabs are extremely furious with Israeli suppressive policies. However this anger has never created hostility between Arabs and Jews and Muslims and Jews… the Holocaust was one of the Nazis’ crimes in the world. As I have said before, Europe is proud and the US is proud in its help to Europe to eliminate fascism from the national level, but unfortunately I have to admit that fascism was not uprooted and was transferred from the West’s national level to the international stage. Today at the international level we see a kind of fascism, apartheid, unilateralism and a kind of totalitarianism according to which nations are distributed, their interests are distributed and wars are created… It is true that there might be radicalism as has existed in the West. There have not been few wars among Christians. The terrors committed by non-Muslim factions are not few. If anyone under the name of Islam resorts to violence and terrorist acts, I condemn it for the very act of terrorism, and also for it to be done under the name of Islam, which is a religion of kindness and compassion. What is dangerous today is inappropriate unilateralist policies and having double standards at the international level and this wrong mentality that all problems can be resolved by force. Some high sacred and humane values like human rights are also exploited to secure unilateral policies. I regret the use of this term [Islamo-fascism]. I am sure the spirit of the American nation is far from such terms. Once before a similar mistake was made and there was talk of new crusade wars, which thanks to wise advisors, was withdrawn. I hope this mistake will be corrected too, which would have no result but creating hatred and problems for countries and nations. I hope this is a misquote.
FT: The US has issued you a visa and facilitated your visit – are these hopeful signs that something will come out of your visit? Will you meet Jimmy Carter and make some kind of gesture to make amends over the hostage crisis, just as Madeleine Albright did regarding the 1953 coup?
MK: … In my interview with CNN [in 1998] for the first time I expressed regret over the hostage taking, although I also said that in the revolutionary atmosphere and because of inappropriate US policies, an over-reaction happened. And I am also saddened and can understand the feelings of the relatives of the hostages. But that incident will not be repeated because the Islamic republic has been consolidated. What needs to be done is to look into the roots and condemn the policies that led to the sad act. As the American nation was saddened to see the dead bodies coming back from Vietnam but they managed to condemn the policies that led to the war. What Albright did was in response to my message to the American nation and my paying respect to the American nation and understanding their bitterness over the hostage crisis. I asserted that as a responsible government that incident would not be repeated. I thank the response by the Clinton administration but believed that bigger steps should have been taken by the US to remove misunderstandings. Regarding my visa, I have come at the invitation of Kofi Annan and invitations by some religious and academic organisations in the US. I am happy to be in the US and be in touch with the learned and the intellectual elite, as well as the American nation. I received Carter’s invitation late. It was at a time when all my plans were sorted out. I fully understand Carter’s plans and believe that he is a figure who has put his background and dignity to fight against poverty and reducing tension whether through criticising pro-violence policies or through preparing grounds for peace and more understanding. Many of their plans at the Carter Center can be close to the plans I have in my center for dialogue of civilisations. In this short time and with intense schedule I did not have a chance to go to Atlanta but I respect Mr Carter and wish him success. Maybe if conditions are prepared we can work together for peace and decreasing international tensions, also to create understanding among nations. I don’t think there would be any problem to do this.
FT: There have been harsh comments by Mr Ahmadi-Nejad about Israel. Do you see this as a change of Iran’s policy towards the Israel-Palestine issue, compared to your time in office? Do you see a day when Iran can recognize Israel?
MK: I don’t think Iran’s policies have changed fundamentally. In fact in the system that works in Iran the president is not deciding about fundamental and general policies at all. Of course the interpretations, tactics and words might be different but the policy I know has been my interpretation of it, that morally speaking we condemn considering occupation as a source of legitimacy… for this reason our policy has always been sustainable peace in the Middle East where Jews, Muslims and Christians are determining their faith and the refugees, who live in camps and die there, will have the right to come back… Naturally whatever Palestinian people accept should be abided by the others as well. I believe sustainable peace would benefit all sides involved, including Iran. This insecurity and grounds for tension are dangerous for everyone. But there is one problem. There have been lots of peace plans, but they have been unsuccessful. The reason is because they were not just. If the rights of Palestinian people, including their right to return to their land, is recognised and if they feel those who advocate peace are neutral toward the two sides, and treat them equally and fairly, I think then the ground for establishment for sustainable peace will be provided. I don’t think there has been any basic change in Iran’s fundamental policies, including non-interference in the domestic affairs of that land. The problem should be resolved through observing the rights of both sides within that land.
FT: Are you saying that a two-state solution is possible?
MK: I think Hamas itself, which has come to power today in a democratic process, is ready to live alongside Israel if its rights are met and it is dealt with like a democratic state and as the Palestinian government, and pressures are removed from Hamas. Of course, whatever Palestinians think is respected by us. Before Hamas, Mahmoud Abbas has said the same thing.
FT: During your two terms in office, you complained a lot about crises created by your opponents to stop reforms. Your close allies also talked about the threat of a military coup against your government. Do you think instead of a direct military coup your reforms lost to a creeping coup?
MK: I finished my terms and did not step down as a result of pressures. Maybe, many anticipated my government would not be able to survive and carry out its slogans following the line-up against my government. But I don’t believe at all there was any coup involved. Differences of opinion are natural. But we have to learn to have differences of opinion in a democratic atmosphere with equal chances for all sides. There should be justice for all sides to express their views, not some to face restrictions and the others to have immunity and enormous chances to express their views…. We could have done more and better work, if we had had better planning and if there were not explicit and implicit obstacles against reforms. We have not been unsuccessful. Our practice of democracy is new, and we have to learn not to change rivalry into hostility… The ground should be prepared for people to judge…. People’s views should be respected in a free and fair atmosphere, as a necessity to establish democracy… Different aspect of democracy should be strengthened. I never felt any coup attempt. Such comments were mostly imaginations… If we believe in democracy, we should also accept opposition.
FT: Apart from being blocked by opponents of reforms, you have admitted that you also made mistakes. Could you possibly give us one or two examples of your own mistakes?
MK: Real reforms should do two things. One is to make people’s expectations realistic, because people who want freedom and progress are in a rush. This can put expectations beyond realities. We were not really successful in bringing down the level of people’s expectations. We came short of convincing the intellectual elites in a way to gain their understanding on one hand, and came short of communicating with the masses on the other hand.
We could not even inform people of the achievements we had. The problem was also because we didn’t have broad-based media to talk to the people.
Second issue is for reforms to increase the tolerance level of the state. If these two are materialized, the democracy process will go on better and more smoothly. A more realistic view by the people would put the government under less pressure and a freer atmosphere can be created. As for the first issue, we could not establish a logical relation with the intellectual elite and the masses, but as for the tolerance my government had a record amount of pressure it went under compared to both before and after the revolution. No government had ever been so much criticized and under so much pressure. One of the most magnificent memories I had was the student day in 1383  in Tehran University. That was what I wanted for people to stand in front of the number one executive figure and not to have any concerns about expressing their views, even though sometimes it was mixed with injustice.
That was the success of my government. I expected that tolerance to be expanded to all the levels of the state, which naturally were not under my influence…. One of the works I am doing now is to extensively evaluate [those eight years] and provide the Iranian nation and future generations with historical documents about the weak and strong points of those years… We did have some weak points, as we had some strong points.
Najmeh Bozorgmehr, the FT’s Tehran correspondent, is currently a visiting fellow at the Saban Center, Brookings Institution, in Washington.