Mohammad Khatami, as president of Iran, delivers a speech to the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, in 2004. Photo: Wikipedia

One doesn’t have to be very old to recollect the emergence and blossoming of Iran’s reform movement. In the May 1997 presidential election, when many observers had reached the foregone conclusion that the establishment confidant, conservative cleric Ali Akbar Nategh-Nouri, would secure an easy victory courtesy of gerrymandering and voter fraud, a reformist underdog turned out to be a dark horse and baffled the world.

Mohammad Khatami, who was previously minister of culture between 1982 and 1992 and little known internationally, bagged 69.6% of the votes in a presidential contest that saw a turnout of 79.92%, a figure not chronicled since the Iranian Revolution.

Khatami’s ascendancy was a prelude to a dynamic reform thrust that injected hope into Iranian society, whipped up a dormant nation after eight years of war with Iraq in the 1980s and the costly post-conflict reconstruction, and incorporated terms in the political lexicon of young Iranians that were not previously embedded in the national discourse, nor did they count as priorities for the majority of the people.

Press freedom, civil society, women’s rights, religious tolerance, dialogue and political development were concepts that constituted the core of Khatami’s ideology, who as a cleric faced immeasurable pressure on behalf of the orthodox seminarians over the changes he was advocating.

Intimidation and extortion by the hardliners trying to browbeat Khatami into shifting course were so unrelenting that his allies concocted the adage “one crisis every nine days” to characterize his tenure.

During Khatami’s time, many of those who are now household names in Iran’s opposition-in-exile campaigning for regime change were young journalists or students who found opportunities to express unconventional opinions publicly, cast opprobrium on the establishment candidly, and craft distinct identities for themselves.

There is a unanimity in referring to Khatami as the leader of a reform movement in Iran. This, however, does not bode well with the opposition factions wishing to take credit for being the representative voice of Iranian people aspiring to a democratic future, which they insist cannot materialize within the framework of the present constitution and the current “regime.”

The fifth Iranian president mostly retreated from public life after retiring from office in 2005, and has kept a relatively low profile ever since. His isolation was compounded especially on the heels of the 2009 presidential election, when he sided with the progressive candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, and sympathized with the outraged dissenters who believed the incumbent hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had rigged the ballot.

Khatami’s rapport with the protesters who staged the most massive anti-government street rallies in 30 years caused him to fall out of favor with the system, and in conjunction with the house arrest of the leaders of the Green Movement, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, Zahra Rahnavard and Mehdi Karroubi, a moratorium was placed on the publication of Khatami’s name and photos in the media.

In late December 2021, in a rare message to the seventh general assembly of the Union of Islamic Iran People Party, one of the few moderate political parties that have been untouched by the blanket purge of the reformist factions ensuing the 2009 Green Movement, Khatami lamented the expulsion of reformists and centrists from the echelons of power.

He warned against the germination of authoritarianism in society in the absence of critical oversight of the government, and called for urgent dialogue to bridge the dramatic gaps between the government and the people.

Khatami’s invitation to national dialogue is redolent of his foreign-policy agenda pivoted on détente with the West, creating bonds with the international community and projecting a friendly image of a nation that was constantly receiving bad press and had limited global connections post-1979.

As idiosyncratic as it was in the Islamic Republic’s foreign-policy rubric, Khatami extended an olive branch to the United States, but was cautious enough not to indulge in an overreach that the hawks could stymie. He inducted his Westward charm offensive by engaging the European Union, and became the first Iranian president to travel to Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Norway and Spain.

In 1998, he boldly expressed regret over the US Embassy hostage crisis, intoning that he was sorry that the feelings of American people were “hurt” by that fiasco. He publicly praised the American civilization and proselytized “the exchange of professors, writers, scholars, artists, journalists and tourists,” which would eventually incentivize closer people-to-people interaction between the two adversaries.

He even went as far as describing Abraham Lincoln, whom he called a “strong and fair-minded American president,” as a martyr who sacrificed his life for the cause of abolition of slavery – an adulation that gave hardliners ammunition to gainsay him for the years that followed.

The universal reputation he sculptured for himself was compelling enough that the idea of a “Dialogue of Civilizations” he put forward as a response to the late Samuel Huntington’s theory of a Clash of Civilizations earned plaudits far and wide, and the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution to designate 2001 as the Year of Dialogue Among Civilizations based on his initiative.

From the University of St Andrews in Scotland to the World Economic Forum in Davos and the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, he was frequently solicited to give talks at reputed venues to articulate the new Iranian vision and tell the world how he wanted to portray his people’s aspirations.

Khatami wasn’t flawless. No politician is. Particularly in his second term as president, he bargained away many of the values for which young, hopeful Iranians had pinned their hopes on him.

Yet the crux of the matter is that as an avant-garde politician, working in a setting in which democracy was an alien concept, Khatami was a rarity in the top leadership as he subscribed to an outward-looking attitude, respect for international norms, and commitment to restraint in foreign policy and religious moderation.

The nuclear threat

The wanton, indiscriminate disqualification of all moderate candidates in the run-up to the June 2021 presidential election to hand over a trouble-free victory to the ultra-conservative Ebrahim Raisi hinted that the establishment was no longer going to allow progressive forces, even those with a track record of loyalty to the Islamic Republic, to recapture power.

The West and other interlocutors of Iran will regret the loss of the opportunity of engagement with the reform movement spearheaded by Khatami and his associates, particularly Hassan Rouhani, whose outreach to the West was snubbed when then-US president Donald Trump walked away from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), theatrically emboldening the Tehran hardliners.

When after a period of unprecedented political, intelligence and military cooperation with the United States following the September 11, 2001, attacks to oust the Taliban from Afghanistan, then-president George W Bush labeled Iran as a party to a hypothetical “Axis of Evil” in his 2002 State of the Union address, Khatami’s overtures to the US were almost entirely spoiled.

Hidebound ideologues of Iran’s far right still resort to Bush’s “Axis of Evil” coinage to pour scorn on the reformists for the futility of their conciliatory gestures to America.

But despite the inconvenience of standing up for polished ties with the United States in a society in which anti-American sentiments have been systemically propagandized for the past 42 years, Khatami didn’t give up.

In 2006, and as an ex-president, he became the highest-ranking Iranian politician to visit the United States, excluding annual diplomatic trips of chief executives to the UN headquarters in New York. He gave a speech at the Washington National Cathedral and continued his US tour by addressing Harvard University, Georgetown University and the University of Virginia.

Resumed negotiations in Vienna to resuscitate the JCPOA serve as a bellwether indicator that the West will have tough times ahead working with the Iranian government in the absence of a pragmatic, rational leader like Mohammad Khatami, who was ready to pay the reputational and political costs of promoting reform at home and engagement abroad.

It is too early to make prognoses about the collapse of the talks under way in Vienna. The horse-trading may succeed, but any breakthrough is contingent upon negotiators making meaningful compromises conducive to the restoration of the original nuclear deal.

There are no signs coming out of the Austrian capital that the ultra-conservative coterie of Iranian diplomats is prepared for such compromises, and their media adviser has even suggested that Iran won’t be affected much if the talks end in an impasse and Security Council sanctions are once again reinstated.

From now on, the world should be resigned to the reality that it will have to talk to a succession of hardline governments in Tehran who will share almost the same principles, but may differ subtly in tone and methods.

Khatami will be remembered as an icon of pragmatism whose impact and legacy will be appreciated more when Iran, after the presumptive abortion of talks, ratchets up its nuclear brinkmanship and takes the “revolutionary” path President Raisi has promised. To expect a reformist administration to surface once again in Tehran is delusional.

Most probably, the only two camps that dislike Khatami are the anti-West diehards who abhor his pro-West worldview and find his cultural liberalism and espousal of social rights aberrant and anti-Islamic, and the pro-monarchy opposition in exile who believe he built up the international legitimacy of the Islamic Republic and delayed the fulfillment of their regime-change plans.

The opposition is unhappy with any betterment in Iran’s domestic affairs and foreign relations they cannot attribute to themselves. And the fact that their prominent celebrities and media organizations never chastised Khatami’s firebrand successor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who violently cracked down on press freedoms, decimated civil liberties and entrenched Iran’s international isolation, and proved to be an unprincipled leader, has a reason.

Other than that, Khatami remains popular, and is clearly not a figurehead who scrambles to regain power. He is concerned about Iran sliding into irreversible autocracy, and his demeanor, manners and political acumen will be missed by Iranians, and of course the West.

Kourosh Ziabari is a journalist and the Iran correspondent of Asia Times. A Chevening Scholarships alumnus, he has reported on grants by the Council of Europe, UNESCO and Deutsche Welle. He is a 2021 Dag Hammarskjold Fund for Journalists fellow and a 2022 World Press Institute fellow. In 2015, he reported from the United States, Malaysia and Pakistan on a Senior Journalists Seminar fellowship by the East-West Center. Follow him on Twitter @KZiabari