Khatami’s U.S. Tour: Can a Former Leader Prevent Another War?

Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami’s widely covered and high-profile 12-day trip to the U.S. was all about symbolism. Or so it seemed, at least as far as the media and the public were concerned. For though he delivered four major speeches, President Khatami disappointed some who thought—or at least hoped—that he was here either to make some new announcement on Iran’s nuclear policy and its troubled relationship with the United States, or to carry a subtle message from his successors to the administration of George W. Bush.

But anyone who knows anything about Iranian politics would have known that Iranian politicians and diplomats take subtlety to levels that require a new definition of the word—and whether there was indeed anything to be read into Mr. Khatami’s trip beyond its stated purpose, even the most astute diplomats, dignitaries and media experts who met him were left guessing. But perhaps the stated purpose, one of dialogue and the encouragement of peaceful resolution to conflicts, was enough.

I accompanied the former Iranian president on his travels in the U.S. (I first met Mr. Khatami when I interviewed him for GQ in 2005, and we’d stayed in touch since then.) And as striking as the symbolism of his presence on our shores was, one can’t help but think that the thousands of Americans who saw him were left with a different, hopefully better understanding of Iran and Iranians.

It is not entirely clear why the U.S. administration decided to issue Mr. Khatami a visa to visit the U.S. in the first place, given that his trip coincided with Iran’s refusal to abide by the U.N. Security Council deadline demanding that it stop uranium enrichment. And one of the punishments, or even sanctions, that the U.S. has specifically mentioned should Iran remain defiant of the U.N. resolution is a restriction on overseas travel by Iranian officials. While Mr. Khatami is not officially an official, he was nonetheless the president of Iran when it was inducted into the “axis of evil” by Mr. Bush, and he remains—at least in some quarters in Congress, the media and even the Simon Wiesenthal Center—an enemy of the nation.

Mr. Bush’s reason for approving Mr. Khatami’s travel request—that he “wanted to hear what he has to say”—rings hollow. Undoubtedly, he wasn’t referring to Mr. Khatami’s speeches or interviews with the press, but rather the translated transcripts of every word uttered by Mr. Khatami and his aides—say in the armored limos thoughtfully provided by the State Department. Had Mr. Bush been in a listening mood, it would have been far easier to just pop over a block or so from the White House to the Willard Hotel for a cup of tea with Mr. Khatami and hear it straight from the horse’s mouth.

Mr. Khatami arrived in New York on Aug. 31, at almost the exact hour that U.N. Ambassador John Bolton declared that the deadline would pass for Iran to comply with the U.N. resolution on enrichment. And Mr. Bolton’s own State Department met Mr. Khatami’s Austrian Airlines jet at Kennedy, on the tarmac, with a full contingent of security provided by the department’s Diplomatic Security Service (along with the NYPD and the New York State Police). Mr. Khatami was whisked to the residence of the Iranian Ambassador to the U.N., one of the few stately mansions on Fifth Avenue, and he settled in for a quiet day of rest before his tour began in earnest.

It was not all catching up on jet lag, though, for the residence was teeming with Mr. Khatami’s entourage from Tehran and staff from the Iranian mission to the U.N. (as well as myself), and discussions immediately began on what the important aspects of the visit were and who Mr. Khatami should talk to. It was almost as if no one, including the arrivals from Tehran, had really believed they’d be sitting overlooking the Met and Central Park with Mr. Khatami that day (and perhaps they didn’t believe it yet). More than once, I heard them say—as if it was just dawning on them—that if all went well, Mr. Khatami’s trip might not only influence American ideas about Iran, but also Iranian ideas about America.

Many hard-liners in Tehran had vehemently opposed this trip, but some political quarters of the U.S., as well as some in the media, claimed that Mr. Khatami’s trip was Iranian “propaganda,” or designed by Iran’s Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Khamenei, to present a soft image of Iran at the opportune time. One writer, the wife of a senior member of current Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration, had published an article in a conservative daily decrying Mr. Khatami’s U.S. visit; in response, a reform newspaper, Shargh, published a piece subtly pointing out that her views were shared by “Zionist” groups in America. (Shargh has been since shut down, ostensibly for technical reasons.) Other Iranian hard-liners had called for him to be defrocked for even thinking of going to America.

But the Iranians on Fifth Avenue were making extensive plans for Mr. Khatami’s visit. The Bush administration had already forbidden contact between current U.S. government officials and Mr. Khatami, but based on the requests and inquiries pouring in, there were apparently many former government officials who were keen to see him, along with countless other influential Americans.

Between all the back and forth on the details of the trip, Mr. Khatami, his delegation, the Iranian diplomats in New York, a few ex-officials now living in the U.S., and a university professor or two on sabbatical in the U.S. reminisced over a never-ending supply of hot tea and plates of fresh fruit. Among Mr. Khatami’s delegation were his former chief of staff, Ali Khatami (his brother), as well as ex-ambassadors and deputy foreign ministers—all working with Mr. Khatami at his new International Institute of Dialogue Among Cultures and Civilizations in Tehran. Some of them hadn’t seen their friends in the U.S. for quite some time. There was an atmosphere of relaxed jollity—at times, howls of laughter at the occasional joke or political story.

The main concern of the party, according to the Mr. Khatami and his aides, was to represent their country well and to correct, to the extent that they could, any wrong impressions that Americans might have of Iran and Iranians. Mr. Khatami was convinced, he said, that the nuclear issue could be resolved through negotiations. (Although Mr. Khatami has no real or official power, his influence inside Iran is still strong; he has good relationships not only with many in the clergy, but also among many policymakers.)

After an uneventful visit to the Met the next morning, Mr. Khatami and his delegation departed for Chicago. Luggage was laid out on the sidewalk on Fifth Avenue, sniffed by dogs and then loaded into a van. The Diplomatic Security Service provided a limo, two S.U.V.’s loaded with agents and another with a machine-gun-toting SWAT team (who stood outside, fingers by their triggers and eyes scanning the surroundings). Bemused passersby looked on as the robed and turbaned Mr. Khatami got into an armored Cadillac with D.C. plates and the motorcade took off, the SWAT team’s guns sticking out of the open back gate of a Suburban weaving across lanes cleared of traffic. Security at the airport was equally tight; although we were driven right onto the tarmac, we had to go up a set of stairs right by the gate and then walk down the gangway onto the plane, with the SWAT team lining the route.

We boarded first, and as the other passengers came on, I overheard one young woman chatting loudly to a friend on her cell phone. “Have you flown since the incident?” she asked a friend, clearly referring to the London plot of a few weeks prior. “You can’t believe it,” she continued, “there are guys with machine guns on the gangway.” She was blissfully unaware of Mr. Khatami in 2A, and I didn’t want to rob her of the satisfaction she expressed to her friend that her flight was well protected.

Labor Day weekend in Chicago—or at least at the Sofitel O’Hare and the convention center across the street—was like what I imagine a weekend in Mecca might be, albeit with an American police presence. Some 30,000 Muslims had gathered for a convention, and they were all going to listen to Mr. Khatami deliver the keynote speech. Muslims of every ethnic background roamed the wide suburban sidewalks and the lobbies of the cluster of hotels, whose bars were completely deserted. It was teatime, all the time. The point was emphasized again and again: Muslims in America have to promote their faith as one of peace, and they have to integrate with and engage their fellow Americans. (On more than one occasion, I was sorely tempted to interrupt various speakers to suggest that perhaps if they wanted to integrate, some of them might want to discourage their wives and daughters from wearing burqas or full hijabs on suburban Chicago streets—but I held my tongue.)

Mr. Khatami’s speech, held in a large auditorium and beamed to the adjacent main hall of the convention center, was punctuated by cheers and applause and interrupted by one African gentleman, who first sang praises, griot style, before Mr. Khatami could start, and then alternately screamed “Allah-u-Akbar!” upon hearing something Islamic and Koranic and “That’s right!” when a political point was made. The speech was a big hit with the crowd, who seemed less interested in the political significance of Mr. Khatami’s trip or in U.S.-Iran relations than in having a Muslim (albeit Shiite) leader of global repute speak at their yearly gathering.

Mr. Khatami returned to New York for two days to attend a U.N. “Alliance of Civilizations” conference before heading to Washington, where his planned speech at the Washington Cathedral was drawing much attention from the media. In between sessions at the U.N., he attended two private dinners at the U.N. Ambassador’s residence—one for a select group of Iranians, the other for an even more select group of influential Americans. I was given access, but the dinners were strictly off the record. My sense was that the Americans left with a clearer understanding of the nuclear issue, perhaps even with a more favorable impression of Iran in general and the Iranian position in particular. Mr. Khatami’s own image, if it had ever been tarnished, was clearly elevated in the minds of those I spoke to.

In Washington, other than his speech at the Washington Cathedral, Mr. Khatami attended a meeting and a luncheon at Georgetown University; then we drove to the University of Virginia, where he delivered another speech to students and faculty (who seemed a little dazed and unsure of why he was there), and then to Monticello to tour Thomas Jefferson’s home. Mr. Khatami attended a gathering of Shiites celebrating the Mahdi’s birthday (the twelfth, and missing, Imam), as well as various other private dinners. His motorcade, which included police motorcycles, was even bigger and the security generally tighter in the Washington area than anywhere else, and many onlookers must have thought that they were seeing the President of the United States passing by, judging by the waves and applause we were greeted with by some of the tourists, and the finger we were given by the peace activists across from the White House.

On one occasion, driving to Georgetown from downtown D.C., we careened through the narrow streets with sirens blaring and at such speed that one of the ex-ambassadors in Mr. Khatami’s entourage, watching the startled faces of pedestrians and other drivers, jokingly asked me if I didn’t think the motorcade itself was a form of terrorism perpetrated on the American people.

Mr. Khatami was generally asked the same questions at virtually every non-Islamic event he attended in Washington, and his answers were consistent, if not always satisfying. While he clearly felt comfortable defending Hezbollah, he was careful to distance himself, even all Iranians, from Mr. Ahmadinejad’s remarks on Israel and the Holocaust, without overly criticizing the new president. The only surprising comment on Iraq came when he was asked by reporters whether the U.S. forces should leave right away: He said he didn’t think so, at least not until the Iraqi government could provide security to its people. On the nuclear issue, he was emphatic that Iran was not seeking weapons and suggested that the U.S. enter negotiations without preconditions immediately, as he believes a negotiated settlement is not only preferable but possible.

At Harvard, Mr. Khatami was prepared for the worst. Not only had Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney refused to allow state employees to provide him any security, but had also called him a terrorist. Protests had been planned, and some students had announced that they were going to confront him with very tough questions. Mr. Khatami again handled the questions he was thrown with extreme skill. In response to a question about Israel, however, he replied that he didn’t believe in wiping anyone or anything off the map, but wanted to remind the audience that a place called Palestine had been wiped off the map for 50 years with little objection from the international community. His remark drew much applause and no audible jeering.

There were moments that gave real hope to those who were looking for signs—any signs—that a real conflict with Iran could be avoided. One could tell by the expressions on people’s faces, by the way they responded to him. Mr. Khatami’s U.S. adventure began on a day when Iran defied the U.N. and the world, and it ended on the fifth anniversary of Sept. 11—a day of tragedy that, he often pointed out, he was one of the first world leaders to condemn. Many of the Americans he met expressed the wish that he was still the president of Iran rather than the incorrigible Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but maybe it’s better that he isn’t. One wonders if perhaps now he can do what no one who holds that office can: bring the Americans and the Iranians closer together, even just a bit.