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Khatemi: Iran's `Ayatollah Gorbachev'

Election Winner Schooled in Islamic Revolution, Western Culture

By John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 25 1997; Page A29
The Washington Post

TEHRAN, May 24 -- Mohammed Khatemi, Iran's next president, is not your average mullah.

True, he is an ayatollah's son who studied Islamic theology in the spiritual center of Qom, where he wrote and distributed leaflets denouncing the American-backed shah. During the early years of the Islamic republic, he was one of its leading propagandists.

But for all his revolutionary credentials, the Shiite Muslim cleric is considered a relative liberal whose election could presage a significant relaxation of Iran's social and cultural atmosphere and -- possibly -- a gradual warming of relations with the West.

Currently the head of Iran's national library, Khatemi, 54, speaks English and German, is conversant in the works of Immanuel Kant and Alexis de Tocqueville and, as culture minister for 11 years, encouraged the post-revolutionary flowering of Iranian cinema, according to associates, foreign diplomats and political analysts.

Unlike many of his fellow mullahs, Khatemi enjoys a reputation for personal probity. He drives a boxy Iranian-made Paykan instead of a Mercedes-Benz and lives modestly in a two-story yellow-brick town house on Revolutionary Guard Street in north Tehran. Married and the father of three children, Khatemi is said to enjoy mountain hikes and a good game of table tennis.

The contrast between Khatemi and the hard-line clerics who dominate Iran's political establishment is such that some Iranians refer to him half-jokingly as Ayatollah Gorbachev, after the leader of the former Soviet Union who opened that country to the West in the late 1980s.

"He was definitely the anti-establishment vote," said an individual who worked for Khatemi for several years in the 1980s and has remained in contact with him. "People shouldn't interpret that as thinking he's not an advocate of the Islamic revolution, but he's a much more broad-minded advocate of the Islamic revolution."

When he went to Khatemi's office in November to urge him to run for president, this person recalled, he found Khatemi writing a translation in longhand of de Tocqueville's classic treatise on American democracy. "We talked about de Tocqueville, and he said, `I'm not going to comment on what the Americans have done, but obviously the question of achieving democracy is essential to achieving human potential,' " the associate recalled.

"He is not someone who considers democracy alien to Islam," he added. "He thinks it's right there, but the Muslims have missed it."

Born in the city of Yazd in the desert of southwestern Iran, Khatemi is the son of a well-known ayatollah, Ruhollah Khatemi, who was a friend and early supporter of ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of the Iranian revolution. Khatemi, in fact, is linked to Khomeini by family; his brother is married to Khomeini's granddaughter.

Khatemi's father, who died 10 years ago, enjoyed a reputation for fairness. "Right after the revolution some people came to him and named a number of men who had cooperated with the shah," one associate recalled. "They wanted them executed or thrown in prison. But his answer was, `If you want to put them in prison, put me in prison first because I had to cooperate too.' "

After finishing his theological studies at Qom and Isfahan, the younger Khatemi got degrees in education and philosophy. He became friends with Khomeini's son, Ahmed, according to an official biography, and went to work for the Militant Clerics' Association, which rallied opposition to the shah's regime.

Eventually he came to the attention of Ayatollah Mohammed Beheshti, chief ideologue of the Islamic Republican Party and a key tactician of the revolution. In 1978, Beheshti appointed him to run the Islamic Center of Hamburg, a European nerve center of the Iranian revolution.

Khatemi returned to Iran in 1979 and took over the Kayhan Institute, which publishes several newspapers. In 1982, he was appointed minister of culture and Islamic guidance, which oversees Iranian films, publishing and mass media.

As culture minister, a job he held for more than a decade, Khatemi encouraged Iranian filmmakers to participate in international festivals, eased restrictions on the content of books and periodicals, and expanded the list of foreign magazines and newspapers allowed to enter the country, according to several associates. He overturned a ban on live music.

Khatemi's relatively permissive policies won him many enemies, who finally forced his resignation in 1992. "Every day it was something new," recalled Ahmad Boorjani, a journalist who is close to the Khatemi campaign. " `Why did you give a license to that newspaper?' `Why did you give a license to that book?' It was every day.
"It wasn't any single incident."

Since Khatemi left, "we have followed a downward trend," said Dariush Mehrjouie, one of Iran's best-known filmmakers. "They still go on producing films, but they're more restrictive."

As head of the national library, Khatemi reads three hours a day, according to Boorjani, and has published several books on subjects such as the relationship between Islam and modernity. Although he largely avoided controversy in his campaign rhetoric, he also hinted at the need for greater freedom of expression in Iran.

"Our backwardness is not due to natural resources or culture -- we have both," he told a jubilant crowd on Wednesday night. "Iranians are smart and creative, they are known for confidence and bravery. The problem is due to the lack of a correct, independent government. People do not have the opportunity to grow. Growth as a country needs sympathy, cooperation, presence in the social scene. It does not mean we should not allow different views."