“George Bush gets bigger protests everywhere he goes”
In an exclusive interview, former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami spoke to Gabriele Steinhauser and Florencia Soto of the University of St Andrews’ student newspaper ‘The Saint’ about the importance of establishing dialogue between East and West, the long democratic struggle of his country and why politicians should be smarter than the rest.
Muhammad Khatami has donned a dark grey robe instead of the dark brown one he is famous for: “The Man with the Chocolate Robe” is how his supporters call him. The same ones who still believed in his regard for human rights and democracy after two terms as Iranian President, during which his reform success remained limited. Surrounded by a sea of advisors he has just finished talking to Jon Snow on Channel 4 News to give ‘The Saint’ an exclusive interview: his first ever interview to a British newspaper. Just a few days ago he cancelled his appointment with ‘The Guardian’; other national papers were excluded from the very start. He greets us with charm and wit, happy to meet some of the students from the university that is conferring him an honorary degree in spite of outrage in the national press. He settles into his chair, relaxed and undisturbed by the humble surroundings of one of the offices in the New Arts Building. He constantly smiles and even jokes about the protests he has encountered.
This man is an experienced politician; he pays special attention to every piece of information we reveal about ourselves. Although the interview is short – barely 15 minutes – he tries to make us feel comfortable. However, his experience also means that he knows how to answer our questions without being controversial, evading any compromising answers. “Time is over” his translator points out, but Dr Khatami allows for one more question. As quickly as he appeared, he leaves the building, and we are left with many questions unanswered. No references to nuclear energy, Israel, or Hezbollah, but at least he took the shortbread we gave him.
TS: There has been a lot of controversy here in Britain surrounding your honorary degree from St Andrews. Have you faced any problems in your country for accepting a degree from a Western university?
MK: “I didn’t face any difficulties at all. I had been invited to attend this ceremony a year ago and it’s mainly a political issue if some people are not satisfied with the person who is going to have such an honour – especially when it’s someone who is an internationally recognised dignitary. So there are always people who have some concerns, but if there was any kind of opposition or protest – whether it is here or anywhere else – it’s for sure less than what happens with President George W. Bush. He gets bigger protests everywhere he goes.”
TS: When you were first elected President of Iran you were hailed as a great reformer and many people attached high hopes to you commitment to human rights and democracy. One year after the end of your term, what do you think were your most successful reforms and where did you encounter difficulties?
MK: “Our revolution saved the nation out of a very black, dark and bitter history of dictatorship. You cannot compare the situation in which the Iranian people were living with the British or the other Western countries. You were born in countries in which science, technology, development and democracy have been institutionalised. But our countries are hindered economically and politically. And they are hindered because of the intervention of the countries, which inside their own countries were quite democratic but outside their own countries were contributing to colonialism. But anyhow, democracy should be adapted to the cultural values of a nation. Democracy cannot be considered as a prescriptive idea. Our nation has been paving the way towards democracy for the past century. We were among the first nations in our region and in Eastern countries going for parliament and constitutional law. But democracy is a process, not a project. And I think the Islamic revolution was a major step in realising democracy. We have lots of developments and improvements in this respect. I am of the strong opinion that it would never get back to the previous situation. There are fluctuations in the policies and history, but the direction of the nation is toward democracy for sure. And the destiny of our nation will be democracy and development inside the country. But again I would like to emphasise that it should be adapted to the cultural values of our nation. And from the past up to here I can see there has been a lot of development. But we are still away from the destination and the goal we have in mind in this respect.”
TS: The University is honouring especially your contribution to interfaith dialogue. What exactly does this Dialogue Among Civilisations entail?
MK: “I am of the opinion that we are not living in a proper world. This century has seen suffering for both the East and West, experienced two huge world wars in the first half of the century, and a couple of decades of the Cold War, which was, in my opinion, even much more disastrous than the world wars themselves. And in the last years of the century and the past decade we’ve had a bitter experience with terrorism and extremism. So it shows that the current paradigm in the human life is not a proper one and shall be changed.
If the paradigm instead of dialogue is pushing forward to have force and violence, we must replace misunderstanding with understanding, collaboration, and co-operation rather than facing each other as an opposition, and paving the way hand in hand – East and West – in order to reach the common goal of all human beings: peace and stability. I’m of the opinion that we may do so using the cultural heritage of the nations and civilisations, and I’m of the opinion that West and East may reciprocate with a variety of values and solutions in this respect. Now human beings are facing each other so they’re not in a position where they can take advantage of these values. So it is difficult to have dialogue, and it is a challenge to sit next to each other rather than facing each other in opposition.
I don’t think that any proposal has been welcomed the way that the Dialogue Among Civilisations was welcomed by the international community. And it shows that people all around the world are worried and concerned of what’s going to happen in the future so they all want to reach a common ground.
I have invited a variety of scholars from the East, West, Christians and Muslims to our office in Geneva, to contribute to the same goal, and I am trying to have a very close relationship with the UN and its specialised agencies such as the UNESCO and the OIC [Organisation of Islamic Countries] and lots of other international committees in order to enrich the activity in this respect. They have all welcomed the idea to do so.”
TS: You have spoken about the position of the United Nations and the Dialogue Among Civilisations. Do you think that the current positions of the American, the British and the Iranian governments foster such dialogue?
MK: “As you know wars and battles always have economic or political reasons. Civilisations never had any fights among each other. Even underneath those battles, civilisations have very close and friendly ties. And one of the reasons that there is such a fight between the East and West was Alexander’s attack on the Eastern civilisations, the Persian Empire. And through these kind of attacks the Westerners, the Roman Empire, learned about the Eastern culture and civilisation. And the problem is that the diplomats and the politicians should be the wise ones. So we would like to have this unconscious dialectic of civilisations to turn into a life dialogue, a conscious one. And we are quite hopeful that through this dialogue amongst civilisations we would be able to actually force politicians to take such a kind of understanding and to be much more flexible.”