Khatami's Challenge.

Author:Kiernan, Peter

Peter Kiernan reports on Iranian President Hojjatoleslam Khatami's first year in power.

In May 1997, Hojjatoleslam Seyyed Mohammad Khatami swept to power in Iran's presidential elections, winning 70 per cent of the vote from a 90 per cent turnout. His surprise victory stunned the conservative establishment of Iran's state apparatus, who supported the candidacy of Majlis speaker Ali Akhbar Nateq Nuri. It was also received with cautious optimism in the West and, since his inauguration in August last year, debate has continued as to how far he can go to reform Iran's domestic and foreign policies.

Khatami, 55, is from the central desert province of Yazd, a region famous in Iran for its weaving industry. He is an MA graduate of Teheran University and, as well as his religious credentials, has pursued philosophical studies to a high level. He speaks English, German and Arabic in addition to Farsi and has written two published books, with a third currently in preparation. He was twice previously the Minister for Culture and Islamic Guidance but was forced to resign from this post in 1992 because of pressure brought upon him due to his relatively liberal attitude to censorship.

Khatami's priorities for Iran, which include institutionalising the rule of law and the constitution and encouraging a freer expression of views, are well known, but it is still uncertain if he can make major changes. His inauguration speech focused on these priorities with foreign policy barely mentioned, except in relation to the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

He spoke of "defending the rights of the world's Muslims and the downtrodden, particularly the oppressed people of Palestine". The United States was not specifically mentioned, but he pledged resistance to the "expansionist policies of the domineering powers, foreign threats or outside aggression in cultural, political and military fields". As evidenced by his interview with CNN, he spoke extensively about the need for `cultural dialogue' among civilisations, which he takes very seriously.

Yet as his presidency closes in on its first year, his achievements so far have been moderate, and in many cases largely confined to rhetoric. It was significant, however, that he was the first leader of Iran to be interviewed by US television since the 1979 revolution.

While warm diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran are a long way off, there are signs a long thaw has already begun. When the US...

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