Friday, May 16, 2003

Khatami does Beirut
Iranian president Muhammad Khatami spent 3 days in Lebanon this week in what was a genuinely significant visit. Though many have written Khatami off (perhaps legitimately), he seemed to have other ideas. Western press reports focused on his statements of support for Hizbullah and opposition to the U.S. presence in Iraq, but that was a one-dimensional reading of something far subtler.

What did the visit achieve? First off, in repeatedly praising Lebanese democracy, tolerance and communal coexistence, Khatami was doing two things: he was sending word back home that he continued to favor reform, and was willing to carry that message to Iran's Shiite brethren in the Arab world; and he was establishing a long-term state-to-state relationship with a fairly liberal country that has a substantial Shiite community.

Secondly, Khatami made it clear that Iran's ties to Lebanon would mainly be funneled, henceforth, through the Lebanese government, not Hizbullah. Yes, he praised the party profusely, but in several statements he took positions implicitly contrary to its strategy. For example he underlined that Iran did “not seek to contribute to an escalation of tension in the region or to…events shaking (regional) stability.” Hizbullah has avoided such rhetoric, which it believes smacks of appeasement when dealing with Israel.

Third, Khatami, while he criticized the U.S. presence in Iraq, also hailed Saddam's overthrow. He knows that going after the U.S. too harshly might damage Iran's relations with a new Iraqi government. He also knows that a majority of Iranians would welcome the removal of the conservative mullahs in Tehran and look towards Iraq as a possible source of domestic transformation.

Finally, Khatami's kind words on Lebanon's communal structure, his repeated opening to Christians, his talk of a "dialogue of religions", and his appearance at the Jesuit St. Joseph University, were all efforts to burnish his image as a moderate, but also to make a point that Islamist intolerance really isn't for him. Indeed, at St. Joseph's he pertinently noted: “Religion and belief should not come at the expense of freedom.”

So, for a few days the domestic struggle in Iran was transposed to Beirut. Will it change very much in Tehran? Probably not, since Lebanon's Shiites will accept whoever leads in Iran. But the visit did bring the Lebanese Shiites more squarely into the inter-Iranian equation, and it did weaken Hizbullah's status as gatekeeper in the Lebanese-Iranian relationship, and it did greatly enhance Khatami's reputation in Lebanon and the Arab world.

One cannot imagine that the petrified fire-eaters back home would have been pleased with this.

PS -- My comment in tomorrow's Daily Star will be on this, but I won't link it.

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