MOHAMMAD Khatami, inaugurated yesterday as president of Iran, has a mandate from young and female voters to widen individual freedom and expand the economy, which has remained stagnant while the population doubled.
He can do that best by avoiding crisis or war and cutting down on demonic enemies. He needs foreign investment to expand the economy, including the oil industry, and for that he needs a climate tolerant of foreigners.
Foreign policy as such is not on his agenda. But it is not hard to deduce that he can best pursue his goals by improving relations with the outside world.
Iran's relations with Britain were poisoned in 1989 when the late spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, called on Muslims to murder British author Salman Rushdie for blasphemy. Until repudiated, this violates British sovereignty and international law. A German court this year held that Iran's leaders had ordered the 1992 assassinations of Kurdish dissidents in Berlin. European Union governments withdrew ambassadors.
President Clinton, inheriting a tangled enmity with Iran's revolution, came into office determined to isolate it. This became sanctions in 1995 and then a law penalizing any foreign firm investing $40 million in Iran's oil industry. Iran is suspected of supporting terrorists in Lebanon and of possible involvement in the bombing of American service personnel in Saudi Arabia last year. It is modernizing weaponry to control shipping in the Persian Gulf, a policy alarming to Washington.
President Khatami will not roll back the Islamic revolution; he merely represents its kinder and gentler side. Neither is he a free agent. At the other pole is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, now the spiritual leader, which is higher than president.
The United States should keep channels open, but not count on accommodation. The question is not whether we demonize them but whether they demonize us or foment terrorism. President Khatami ought to want to improve relations with the United States, but may have concluded for domestic reasons that it is not what he can do first.
Pub Date: 8/05/97