No respect for Khatami

Former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami has been touring the US issuing vague appeals for dialogue and understanding between his country and the West.

In a speech Thursday at Washington’s National Cathedral, Khatami said, “It’s good at the present time, where war, violence and repression is so prevalent across the world, for all of us who are followers of God’s religion to pursue all efforts for the establishment of peace and security.”

Critics have charged that Khatami’s trip is riddled with hypocritical contradictions since, during his presidency, the Islamic republic was guilty of widespread human rights abuses. Although Iran’s hard-line judiciary is widely blamed for the arrest of dissidents, Khatami was unable to restrain political rivals.

Pressed on Iran’s abuses, Khatami said he would not deny that his country has serious problems, but he cautioned that democracy is a “process” that cannot reverse centuries of despotic rule overnight. Iran was ruled by various dynasties for some 2,500 years.

As Khatami spoke inside the limestone Gothic cathedral, hundreds of diplomatic security agents, including their own SWAT teams, surrounded the church grounds.

On the other side of Wisconsin Avenue, a crowd of about 200 shouted, “Shame on you,” as invitees waited to pass through security and enter the cathedral gates. Khatami spoke before an audience of 1,300.

It may be hard for some to remember, but Khatami, running as a reformist, received 70 percent of the vote in Iran’s 1997 presidential election, overwhelming a more conservative candidate.

Mr Khatami promised Iranians change, and women and the young came to vote for him with an enthusiasm that has not been seen in previous elections.

I’ll give Khatami the benefit of the doubt that he was sincere about pursuing fundamental change and greater freedoms in Iran. But his efforts were systematically undercut by Iran’s reactionary theocracy. And the worst part is that– aside from some occasional public whining– for eight years Khatami stood aside and let it happen.

Did it ever occur to him that with the vast majority of Iranians on his side, at some point he could have simply refused to follow the mullahs’ dictates? That if he was committed to genuine democracy, he could have called his supporters into the streets and stood down Ayatollah Khamenei’s lackeys and thugs?

Instead Khatami backed down time after time, crushing the hopes of those who elected him and paving the way, in large part, for his successor– the repressive hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

It’s instructive to watch these videos of Khatami appearing before a restive crowd at Tehran University toward the end of his second term as president, and to see reform-minded students vent their frustration at him.

As an al-Jazeera commentator remarked, “It seemed that the students of the conservative movement were the only ones who, uncharacteristically, defended the reformist president.”

So why is Khatami getting respectful audiences in the US? To my mind, he is even more contemptible than Ahmadinejad, who after all is what he is. Millions of Iranians trusted Khatami to be something better, but all they got was a sell-out, a weakling and a coward.