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Los Angeles Times
Sunday, May 25, 1997

A Mullah With Open Mind

A Mullah With Open Mind, Khatami Won by Dint of Character Profile: Iran's seventh president has written extensively about reconciling Islam to the modern world. And he plays Ping-Pong.

Times Staff Writer

TEHRAN--Some have called him the Ayatollah Gorbachev. He is not your typical Iranian mullah. Aides and acquaintances say his idea of light reading--three hours a day--is philosophers Immanuel Kant and Rene Descartes. He regularly browses through Western newspapers and magazines, has lived abroad, speaks German and English in addition to his native Farsi, and has written extensively on the topic of reconciling Islam to the modern world.
Oh yes, he plays Ping-Pong too. Such is the unusual biography of the 54-year-old liberal scholar--who claims to be descended from the prophet Muhammad--whom Iranians have chosen to be the seventh president of their Islamic Republic.

Mohammad Khatami's electoral upset overturned the conventional wisdom that his better-known opponent, parliament Speaker Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri, would win. Walking away from the polls, voters frequently cited Khatami's personal character, integrity and intellect as important factors in their choice.

"He is an honest man, faithful to the rules of Islam...educated and open-minded," schoolteacher Mahmoud Dehqhani said after voting Friday, in a typical summation of the candidate's public image. Friends who have known Khatami for years also paint a portrait of a man of unusual intelligence and sensitivity, who is interested in a wide range of views while still deeply committed to the Islamic revolution in which he has been active since he was a teenager.

Iranian journalist Ahmad Boorjhani, who worked for Khatami when he was culture minister in the 1980s and has remained close to him, says Khatami can best be described with the Farsi word aghazadeh, which means "a noble person." Before storming onto the political scene, Khatami had been in a low-profile position, serving as head of the national library and as a cultural advisor to the incumbent president, Hashemi Rafsanjani.

But he is best known to the Iranian public for his 10 years as minister of culture and Islamic guidance in the 1980s, a period during which he developed a reputation as a cautious liberal.
Khatami was known as a voice for relative tolerance in the arts, and filmmaker Dariush Mehrjui remembers the time of his tenure as a kind of golden age, when directors and artists had fewer problems with censorship than today.

Among other things, he allowed the import of Western newspapers and periodicals. He also lifted a ban on women singing in public by permitting a concert by the Iranian singer Parisa--but only before an all-female audience. In the area of cinema, he allowed screenwriters to cast doubt, obliquely, on some government policies, such as the long and devastating war with Iraq, which ended in 1988.

Hard-liners in parliament and in the press began to criticize Khatami in the early 1990s, accusing him of Western or un-Islamic sympathies. "Every day there was something new. Every day the critics were on him," Boorjhani recalled. "So he just gave up."

A political analyst familiar with Khatami's writings places him in the tradition of modernizers who have been working to interpret Islam for the modern world since the 19th century. Unlike many Iranian clerics, "he has a very good theoretical knowledge of Western philosophy and a very good sense of Western culture," said the analyst, who has known Khatami for about five years.

"He is not someone who considers democracy alien to Islam--he thinks it's right there but the Muslims have missed it," said a friend and former employee.

Khatami was born in 1943 to a clerical family. He is the son of a highly esteemed ayatollah--or religious leader--from Ardakan, in the central desert province of Yazd. His father was a friend and advisor to a fellow ayatollah, Ruhollah Khomeini, the fiery cleric who in the early 1960s openly challenged the rule of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi as corrupt and scandalous, and who was exiled by the shah in 1964.

Following in his father's footsteps, after high school Khatami studied at the famed Shiite Muslim seminary at Qom. During his first year there, he became active in Khomeini's political movement, drafting and passing out leaflets, bulletins and pamphlets against the shah's regime.

He continued his anti-government activities in the Islamic movement when he pursued his studies in philosophy at the seminary in Esfahan and then at Tehran University, where he earned a degree in education. He became a leading pamphleteer for the movement and so came to the attention of Mohammad Beheshti, a chief tactician behind the Islamic revolution.

Beheshti dispatched Khatami in 1978 to Hamburg, Germany, to head an Islamic center devoted to political change in Iran. The organization was also a nerve center for the opposition movement in Europe. But Khatami's stay abroad was short-lived; he returned the next year after the shah fled into exile and Khomeini returned in triumph from Paris.

"One of the many interesting things about the guy is [that] in the old days, when people were riding around with bodyguards in bulletproof cars, he didn't do that," said a former editor who worked with him. 'He had a Mercedes, but it wasn't bulletproof, and he only had one bodyguard. Then he was riding around in a Paykan," a modest Iranian-built sedan.

"If you wanted to see him, all you had to do was go knock on his door--he was very informal. . . . The thing about Khatami is he is basically an intellectual, but he's not aloof," the former editor said.

The former editor said he last met with Khatami in November. A faction of leftist politicians had already approached him to run for president, seeing him as someone who could bridge the political divide and unite groups opposed to the dominant conservative mullahs.

"At that time, he told me that he did not necessarily want to be president, but so many people came to him" that in the end he decided to run, the editor said.