Commentary Magazine


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Encouraging Iranian Moderates

Today, a star-studded cast of former leaders from Asia, Africa, and Europe met in Tehran at a conference sponsored by Mohammad Khatami, the former Iranian president. Khatami is expected to challenge Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in his reelection bid next June, and the presence of Kofi Annan and others at the Conference on Religion in the Modern World is seen as their endorsement of the event’s sponsor in the presidential contest. Besides the former U.N. Secretary-General, attendees included a former Irish president, a former Italian prime minister, a former French prime minister, a former Portuguese president, a former Sri Lankan president, a former Sudanese prime minister, and a former UNESCO director general.

“This conference has nothing to do with presidential elections,” Khatami told reporters. Of course. But the timing of the visits of the foreigners was hardly coincidental, coming during a period of speculation in Iran as to who will challenge Ahmadinejad. “Our homeland Iran is in danger,” said Mostafa Tajzadeh, a reformist figure. “Khatami has to run in the upcoming elections to save Iran from catastrophe and destruction.”

If the former president could do that, we would all be wearing Khatami campaign buttons and making donations. But Iran’s president is hardly the most powerful figure in the country’s amorphous political system, and he does not control key regime elements, including those responsible for the nuclear weapons program. Even if Khatami is elected to his old post, the change in administration would hardly constitute a change in the regime-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would remain in charge, after all–and it might just make things worse by putting an acceptable face on an abhorrent government. During his two-term presidency, Khatami often clashed with the more radical elements in the regime and mostly lost, disillusioning his supporters and delegitimizing the reformists.

Khatami is expected to announce his candidacy in February. And when he does he will undoubtedly attract support from other nations that hope to see a more moderate Iran. There is, in general, nothing wrong with encouraging the more modern elements in Iranian society, but at some point–well before the election–we need to know whether Khatami will acknowledge the existence of the nuclear weapons program and how he feels about it.

Too often we encourage moderates in a hardline society on the assumption that engagement in the long run will bring needed change. With Iran just months from acquiring all the knowledge needed to build a nuclear weapon, we cannot afford to rely on the tiresome generalities of good intentions-for which Kofi Annan is famous. We need to know what Khatami intends to do and when he will do it.