29 March 2009

Dr Khatami at AIIA Victoria

On Friday 27 March the former President of Iran, Dr Mohammad Khatami, addressed a gathering at Morgans at 401, 401 Collins Street Melbourne, convened by the Victorian Chapter of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.

Dr Khatami’s address and answers to questions were given in Farsi and rendered into English by the interpreter who accompanied him. The following account is based on notes I took at the time, but please bear in mind that his remarks have been processed through two minds, the interpreter’s and mine, between him uttering them and you reading this account. It is presented in point form as a reminder that these are jottings, not a transcript. If I have missed any of the subtleties of Dr Khatami’s remarks, I apologise both to him and to you the reader.

My congratulations to Professor Joseph Camilleri of La Trobe University’s Centre for Dialogue for arranging Dr Khatami’s visit, and to AIIA Victoria for convening this particular event.

Notes of Dr Khatami’s remarks

- I introduced the idea of the Dialogue Among Civilizations in response to Samuel Huntingdon’s theory of the Clash of Civilizations.

- In 1998 the UN General Assembly declared 2001 to be the Year of the Dialogue Among Civilizations.

- Iran is at the centre of the most crisis prone region of the whole globe. For a century external powers have imported crisis and exported our resources.

- The Silk Road used to connect East with West and North with South. Iran was at the centre of these connections and was the at centre of the great exchanges of culture which resulted.

- A very small number of nations has contributed to the world’s great civilisations. Iran was one of the world’s two superpowers in ancient times, and made great contributions to Islamic science.

- Iran has the world’s second largest resources of oil and gas. It has a huge border with the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz.

- It has a history of dictatorships, but also of democracy and civil society. It was a pioneer of the countries of the region in establishing democracy over a century ago, in 1906.

- Iran has a profound historical awareness based on its “three great pains”:

(1) Centuries of dictators

(2) A history of dependence other countries and its resources being exploited

(3) The fact that today it is not even a good consumer of science, whereas at one time it was a great creator of science.

- So now its three great requests of the world are a reflection of those three great pains.

- Iran has an understanding of Islam based on its own capacities.

- Religion has been a big factor in Iranian life from pre-Islamic times. Even non-Muslim Iranians today have strong religious feeling.

- The Iranian reform campaign started a century ago, and was revitalised during my term as President.

- In Iran, reforms which ran counter to the nation’s religious tendencies were never successful, even though they achieved a lot. The campaigns that were successful were those that respected the nation’s religious traditions.

- The idea of a Republic means all the constituents of democracy. Iran had a referendum, framed a constitution, and put the constitution to a vote. Compare this with other revolutions in this century. In many cases, even after 50 years, the Politburo decides everything.

- I do not claim that everything in Iran is OK or that women’s rights have been established in the way they deserved.

- Iran’s dictators were people who had their minds with countries abroad.

- Look at Afghanistan and the Taliban. The Taliban believes that there is no such thing as the people’s vote. I don’t know whether the Taliban is more of an enemy to us or to the Americans.

- Iran seeks an Islam that is compatible with democracy.

- We have some extremists in Iran.

- I do not claim that everything that happened in my time was OK or that everything I would like to have achieved was achieved.

- Please bear in mind that other countries in the region do not pay attention to human rights.

- In Iran today 60% of university admissions are girls whereas in some countries with Western support women are not even allowed to drive. I say this not to criticise any other country but to put the situation of women in Iran into some kind of perspective.

- Iran is a historical social power in the region. If we can change the attitude to Iran, then we together we can solve many of the region’s problems.

- We need huge reform in the international organisations.


(1) A question on Iranian-Armenian relations, noting that Armenia is Iran’s only Christian neighbour.

- After the collapse of the USSR there were some opportunities in relations with neighbouring former Soviet states, but also some problems.

- One of our main priorities was to find out about the problems with our neighbours and sign Memoranda of Understanding.

- The West contributed to the problems in order to access resources, for example in Azerbaijan.

- One of our best relationships with neighbouring countries is with Armenia. During my term we constructed many roads in Armenia.

- Iranian Armenians are well integrated into society but all elements of our society suffer from underdevelopment.

- We need new technologies from other countries. Some difficulties with other countries impede progress.

- Minorities have problems all over the world. We are trying to do better.

(2) You were quoted in Salaam, 11 May 1997 as saying that one of the West’ biggest mistakes was the emancipation of women. What is your personal view of this matter?

- I don’t remember saying such a thing, but perhaps I have forgotten it.

- I believe women have suffered a lot in history. Even now we have dominance of the masculine. People say that women should be able to be more like men, but perhaps men should be more like women.

- This is a very important issue. The West has achieved a lot. The problem in the East is not the Islamic text – it goes back to older traditions.

- Before the Revolution clerics said that women should not have the vote, but after the Revolution women can vote.

- Still it was said that women would not be able to become President of Iran, but now the mainstream view of clerics is that it would be possible for a woman to be President.

(3) A question about women’s testimony being worth only half of that of men in legal cases.

- Some fatwa say that the testimony of women and men is equal, some that women’s testimony is only worth 50% of the evidence of men. I don’t agree with the latter.

- It must be understood that the people who advance this argument are not saying that women are less valuable than men, no-one is saying that: how they rationalise their position is by saying that women are more emotional than men and therefore their evidence may not be as reliable.

- In every religion you have the historical religion (how it thinks of itself) and the reality of each religion (how it has actually behaved). There is historical Islam and historical Christianity, and the reality of each religion.

- Much has been achieved, the rest is coming with your assistance. For sure there have been big mistakes in the past.

(4) A question from Professor Michael Porter about the role of the Scottish enlightenment – people like David Hume and Adam Smith – in Dr Khatami’s economic thinking.

- I have an honorary doctorate from the University of St Andrews.

- Economics is a science, not as precise as physics or chemistry, but a science directed towards achieving a better life.

- When I became President I sat down with the experts and drew up an economic plan.

- The plan involved strengthening the private sector, tax reform in favour of production, and an improved law on foreign direct investment.

- At the same time, we were suffering from poverty a lot, and couldn’t ignore the poor people. We could help them in two ways – through employment and through social security.

- We had to strike a balance: we should not victimise part of society to achieve development, and we cannot give everything to the poor.

- At the end of my term I handed over $14.3 billion; they have $14.5 billion – about the same. But in the meantime we have had $150 billion of revenue and people are starting to ask where did the $150 billion go? The poor are poorer. Many other things have not improved.

- My foreign policy was based on confidence building and restraint. The economic improvements in my time were based on an open foreign policy.

(5) I am concerned about how you are represented in the media. For example, you are quoted as saying that Israel is a wound in the side of Islam. Do you still stand by that?

- They condemn me for things I have not said. I don’t know who said it, I don’t know who heard it.

- We have a terrible crisis in our region and we must approach it from a realistic point of view.

- Over the last 60 years we have spent much and made a lot of effort, and achieved nothing.

- The dire need of our region is for development, and the nations of the region should crave peace. There have been many plans for peace; why did they all come to nothing?

- The reality is that 4 million Palestinians were expelled from their homes and their land. Many have been born, lived their lives and died in camps. How can they be expected to accept that they can never return to their homeland?

- Any peace plan, to be successful, must be based on justice. Both sides must feel that it is just; it cannot be everything that one side wants and nothing that the other side wants.

- The greatest achievement of the modern era is that force and military occupation are no longer the source of legitimacy. In the past, a big country could attack a little country and everyone would recognise the conquest and confer legitimacy on the new situation. This is no longer the case. When Hitler occupied France in the Second World War, he never achieved legitimacy. The heroic resistance of the French people turned into a legend, and we have scores of books and films about their exploits.

- The precise form of a peace settlement is a matter for the Israelis and the Palestinians to negotiate.

- If we can solve this problem we can return to the situation of centuries ago when Jews, Christians and Muslims could live together in perfect harmony.


For those readers interested to follow up on Dr Khatami’s reference to over a century of democracy in Iran, a recent book is Ali Gheissari and Vali Nasr, Democracy in Iran, Oxford University Press, 2006.

To quote a few sentences from the preface:

The seeming paradox of the Iranian case has to do with the complexity of Iran’s struggle with democracy, one that spans a century and that involves broad questions of state-building, social development, cultural change, and individual freedoms. Although the struggle for democracy has gained momentum in recent years, its roots run deep in contemporary Iranian history....The challenge facing Iran today, as it was a century ago, is how to bring together the quest for democracy and the imperatives of state-building to create a democratic state. This book chronicles how Iran has responded to that challenge, and what the legacy of that effort means for our understanding of democracy and its manifestation in the Muslim world.

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