Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami spoke at the Kennedy School of Government last Sunday at the invitation of KSG’s dean, David Ellwood and the faculty. His speech at the Kennedy School was part of a two-week speaking tour across five American cities, and appeared to be the first time Mr. Khatami has been able to practice the “dialogue amongst civilizations” theory he had espoused at the United Nations a few years ago, as the counterpoint to Huntingdon’s “clash of civilizations”.
The Visit to KSG
Controversy stuck at the Kennedy School prior to the actual visit on September 10. Dean Ellwood and his faculty were heavily criticized by other members of the University and in the press for extending the invitation to the former president. The Boston Herald, for instance, quoted university rabbi Hirschy Zrachi as saying, “People are shocked and offended. This man has no place speaking at a place like Harvard.” Nonetheless, Dean Ellwood defended the invitation in an interview with the Boston Globe, saying that the United States needed dialogue with its enemies. Predictably, the controversy led to a large turnout for the speech on Sunday, with over 800 students, faculty and members of the public in attendance, many of whom had obtained their tickets through a lottery. Chants of “Shame on Harvard” could be heard from over 200 protesters stationed outside the Kennedy School.
In his speech entitled, “The Ethics of Tolerance in the Age of Violence,” Mr. Khatami spoke of the need for restraint in US-Iranian relations and voiced his disapproval for violence in the name of any religion. He drew applause when he condemned the September 11 attacks as “barbaric and savage acts,” and again when he rounded off his speech by switching from Farsi to hesitant English to express his sympathy for the families of the victims of September 11. More surprising was his call to the Muslim world to embrace democracy, which is “inevitable”. However, he justified Iran’s support for Hezbollah by calling it a resistance movement rather than a terrorist group, and downplayed Iran’s involvement as offering “spiritual support”, rather than financial support. He also stressed that the United States cannot play the role of mediator in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as it is still seen as being biased and intent on world domination.
The Impact of the Speaking Tour
As the most senior Iranian dignitary to visit the United States since the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Mr. Khatami’s visit was closely watched. He arrived at a critical point in US-Iranian relations, just as the August 31 deadline for Iran to cease enrichment of uranium for use in the manufacture of nuclear weapons passed, and the world awaits the next step in the negotiations between Iran, the United States and her European allies.
Prior to the speech at KSG, Mr. Khatami had addressed an audience of over 1,200 in the Washington National Cathedral on September 7, where he appealed for greater dialogue amongst cultures. Whilst he stayed away from commenting on current affairs, Mr. Khatami did ask for the standoff between the United States and Iran to be resolved through dialogue instead of threats. However, it is unclear how much of an influence his words would have on the foreign policy of his successor, the hardline President Ahmadinejad. Mr. Khatami, long considered a moderate in Tehran, had promised reforms when he first won the presidential election in 1997, but was thwarted in his attempts to improve the status of women and respond to the demands of the young generation by hardliners at home. President Ahmadinejad, who took over in 2005, has maintained a more conservative, aggressive stance, and has called for Israel’s destruction.
Mr. Khatami also failed to meet any U.S. officials during his visit, although President Bush told the Wall Street Journal that he was interested in hearing what he had to say in his speeches. In the end, it is most probable that Mr. Khatami made the largest impact by presenting the moderate face of Iranian leadership to a country still grieving over the losses of the September 11 attacks, and making his appeal for restraint and peaceful resolutions to the Middle East tensions.