Khatami, Mohammad (1943–)

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Khatami, Mohammad

Mohammad Khatami was president of Iran from 1997 to 2005. As a young man, he studied Islam under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1902–1989, who would become leader of the Islamic Revolution in Iran), and in the late 1970s joined the clerical party that supported Khomeini's ideas about Islamic government. From the early 1980s, Khatami cooperated politically with fellow clerics and lay politicians who interpreted Islamic government to mean popular sovereignty and pluralistic democracy, notions that more conservative-minded leaders dismissed as threats to the authority of religious laws, traditions, and the clerical institution. As president, Khatami tried to implement reforms to democratize the political system, but much of the legislation he proposed was blocked by the conservatives.


Khatami was born in Ardakan, central Iran, on 29 September 1943. His parents were Ayatollah Ruhollah Khatami, a widely respected Shi'ite Muslim cleric, and Sakineh Ziyai. Because his family traces its lineage to the Islamic prophet Muhammad, close friends and kin address Khatami familiarly as Sayyid Mohammad, sayyid being an honorific indicating descent from the Prophet. His wearing of a black turban also indicates his sayyid status.

After obtaining a high school diploma in 1961, Khatami studied briefly in Qom, where he attended classes taught by Khomeini. Subsequently, he served for two years in the Iranian military, an experience he credited for bring-ing him into contact with Iranians of diverse social and economic backgrounds. Following his two-year service in the army, he was accepted into the University of Isfahan, from which he obtained a B.A. in philosophy in 1968. He then went on to graduate school at the University of Tehran, where he studied for an M.S. degree in education. Before completing this program, however, Khatami decided that his primary interest was theology and thus returned to Qom, where he spent seven years studying Islam under Iran's leading religious scholars of the 1970s. While a student in Qom, he in 1974 married Zohreh Sadeghi, a daughter of a prominent religious family; his wife's maternal uncle was Musa Sadr, the Iranian cleric whom the Shi'ite community in Lebanon had invited in 1958 to become its chief spiritual leader (imam) and who mysteriously disappeared in August 1978 while on a trip to Libya as part of an effort to resolve communal conflicts among Lebanese militias. Khatami and his wife subsequently had three children: two daughters and one son.

While studying in Qom, Khatami associated with other former students of Khomeini, many of whom joined in 1977 to form the Society of Combatant Clergy (Jame'eh-e rohaniyat-e mobarez, JRM), an organization that would play a pivotal role in mobilizing Iranians against the shah during the Islamic Revolution of 1978–1979 and subsequently in establishing the political institutions of the Islamic Republic. It was this society that in 1978 sent Khatami to Hamburg in West Germany to serve as director of the Islamic Institute, which ministered to the large numbers of Iranian students residing in that German city and its outlying areas. During his tenure, the Islamic Institute organized activities among the Iranian diaspora in support of the revolutionary movement that was gathering momentum throughout the summer and fall of 1978. Khatami returned to Iran after the revolution and became politically active in the JRM, which comprised the clerical bloc in the nascent Islamic Republic Party (IRP). Khomeini appointed him to be supervisor of the recently nationalized Keyhan Publishing Company, the main product of which was the daily Keyhan newspaper. In 1980 Khatami was elected to the first Majles al-shura (parliament) as a deputy from Ardakan, but he did not complete his term as a representative, resigning in 1982 to become minister of culture and Islamic guidance in the cabinet of prime minister Mir Hossein Musavi.


From the beginning of his political involvement, Khatami was associated with the progressive wing of the JRM, which advocated liberal interpretations of Islam and implementation of economic and social polices to promote the welfare of middle- and low-income groups. In contrast, the conservative faction of the JRM favored traditional interpretations of Islamic laws and also was allied with the bazaar (mercantile) class; the latter opposed governmental regulation of the economy, except in the case of tariffs on imported goods, which the bazaar wanted to maintain at high levels to protect their own domestic manufactures. Policy disagreements between these two factions became increasingly intense throughout the 1980s, even though Iran was engaged in a major war with Iraq and despite that Khomeini, as the faqih (jurist) constitutionally empowered to supervise the political system, persistently called upon the activist clergy to compromise their differences for the sake of national and religious unity. Indeed, Khatami himself resigned as minister of culture in 1986, during a period of particularly severe conservative criticisms of the Musavi government. The political contest between the conservatives and progressives culminated in April 1988 with several radical members, including Khatami, deciding to leave the JRM and form their own party, the Association of Combatant Clergy (Majma'-ye rohaniyun-e mobarez, MRM). Khatami succinctly spelled out the reasons for creating the MRM in a Tehran newspaper:

Members of the JRM were split [along ideological lines] from the very beginning of the revolution. Now, we [the MRM] have no choice but to pronounce our opinions as the MRM of Tehran, because some [of our] views [in the JRM] are being ignored…. There have been differences of opinion among the membership of the JRM regarding at least seventeen points…. We must close the door on those who do not believe in the eternal war between the rich and the poor and who exploit Islam for their own political and material well being … [this] American brand of Islam must be eradicated. (Etelaat, 4 May 1988)


Name: Mohammad Khatami

Birth: 1943, Ardakan, Iran

Nationality: Iranian

Family: Wife, Zohreh Sadeghi; two daughters, Leila and Narges; one son, Emad

Education: Iran: B.A. (philosophy), University of Isfahan, 1968; graduate study, University of Tehran and theology colleges of Qom


  • 1978: Director, Islamic Center, Hamburg, Germany
  • 1979: Supervisor, Keyhan Publishing Company
  • 1980: Majles deputy representing Ardakan
  • 1982: Minister of culture and Islamic guidance
  • 1992: Director, National Library
  • 1997: President of Iran

In 1989, following the death of Khomeini, the approval of constitutional amendments that expanded the authority of the president by making the holder of that office head of government as well as head of state, and the election of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani as president, Khatami returned to the cabinet in his former position as minister of culture. With the backing of Rafsanjani, Khatami pursued a relatively liberal cultural agenda that included relaxing censorship regulations pertaining to the press, broadcast media, the arts, and cinema. As the cultural and social environment became freer, some conservatives became alarmed that their vision of an Islamic society was being undermined by the infiltration of values they deemed to be Western and antireligious. Consequently, the ministry of culture and even Khatami himself became ever more frequent objects of criticism in conservative publications. In July 1992, after ali khamenehi, the successor to Khomeini as faqih, made a speech critical of official permissiveness toward non-Islamic Western values, conservative deputies in the Majles became more emboldened in their complaints about the ministry of culture's policies, and this prompted Khatami to resign. Subsequently, he was appointed director of the National Library, a semischolarly position that removed him from the corridors of political partisanship but afforded him an opportunity to ponder and develop his ideas about civil society, political tolerance, and democracy. During the nearly five years he headed the National Library, Khatami participated in several academic seminars in which he called for democratization of the political system and diplomatic engagement with non-Muslim societies.

Rafsanjani was reelected to a second four-year term in 1993, but backed the candidacy of Khatami for the May 1997 presidential election. Khatami actually won nearly 70 percent of the popular vote on the strength of his promises to initiate social reforms, promote the rule of law, create a civil society (jame'eh-e madani), and promote a dialogue of civilizations. His victory launched the reform movement known as Dovum-e Khordad (the second of Khordad month, equivalent to 23 May, the date of Khatami's election). As a former minister of culture, Khatami understood the value of a free press in terms of promoting the rule of law and an accountable government, and thus he encouraged his minister of culture, Ayatollah Mohajerani, to ease censorship and issue publishing licenses with minimal red tape. As a result, during the first two years of Khatami's presidency, there was a proliferation of newspapers, several of which initiated investigations of political institutions and politicians suspected of abusing civil rights. Khomeini also was a proponent of women assuming an activist role in society. He appointed Iran's first female vice president, maʿsumeh ebtekar, who served for eight years as vice president for the environment. With the direct encouragement of the government, women expanded their presence in higher education, employment, the arts, publishing, and even in sports.


Sayyid Mohammad-Reza Khatami (1959–), the younger brother of Mohammad Khatami, became politically active after his brother was elected president in 1997. He was trained as a physician, specializing in nephrology (kidneys), and had a medical practice before entering politics. Following his brother's election, he joined with other supporters to form the reformist coalition known as Dovum-e Khordad. He also founded the Islamic Iran Participation Front, which became the largest of eighteen political parties in the Dovum-e Khordad bloc, and served as its secretary-general until 2005; he still is a member of the party's central committee. For two years he held the position of vice minister in the Ministry of Health, resigning in early 2000 to be a candidate in elections for the Majles. He won a seat for Tehran, getting over 1.7 million votes, and was elected to be deputy speaker of the sixth parliament (2000–2004), with Mehdi Karrubi, a member of the reformist MRM, as speaker. Khatami was an outspoken defender of the reform movement, a tireless and articulate advocate of the rule of law and democratization, and a severe critic of the policies and tactics adopted by the conservatives to derail political reforms. For a period, he also was managing editor of the reformist daily Mosharekat, a paper that exposed the intimidation tactics of vigilante groups connected to the conservatives; the courts eventually closed down the paper. Many conservatives deeply resented Khatami's blunt criticisms, and in 2004 the conservative-dominated Council of Guardians disqualified him from being a candidate in the elections for the seventh Majles (2004–2008).

In 1983, Khatami married Zahra Eshraghi, a granddaughter of Ayatollah Khomeini and an activist on behalf of women's rights; they have two children, a daughter and a son.

The policies of the Khatami administration prompted a backlash on the part of conservatives who opposed cultural and social reforms for ideological reasons and felt threatened by many of the political reforms. The judiciary was one branch of government over which Khatami had virtually no influence, and thus conservatives began to use his call for the rule of law as a political strategy for their own advantage by targeting prominent reform politicians such as Tehran mayor Gholam-Hossein Karbaschi, whom prosecutors charged with illegal diversion of municipal funds into political campaigns. Although never stated explicitly, the real crime of Karbaschi was his active promotion of Khatami during the presidential election of 1997. The conservatives also used the press law to go after reform newspapers that they accused of publishing rumors that effectively slandered various political leaders. The conservatives had an important ally in Khamenehi. Although he had resigned the JRM in 1989 after being elected as faqih to succeed Khomeini, Khamenehi had been a member of the conservative faction of the party before the split of the MRM, and it was widely believed, among both the political elite and the population at large, that he remained sympathetic to the conservatives. Politically, this perception served to strengthen the conservatives and to weaken Khatami and the reformers. Indeed, extreme conservatives even resorted to harassing speakers at reformists' meetings and rallies.

The conservatives did not oppose all of Khatami's policies; rather they selectively supported those that they believed had potential political benefits for themselves. For example, they backed most of Khatami's economic policies, which were intended to align the country's economy with the neoliberal economic policies being promoted by the World Bank. They also voted for legislation to create popularly elected local councils for all cities, towns, and villages. The first such elections actually took place in 1999, when several thousands of local officials were elected, although most of them expressed support for Khatami's program. In the 2000 parliamentary elections, the Dovum-e Khordad coalition won an overwhelming majority of the Majles seats. Despite this political loss for the conservatives, they already had demonstrated their ability to contain the reform movement through intimidation tactics, by using the judicial system to stymie many of Khatami's policies, and even had managed to send some of his political supporters to prison. And to show their continued clout, the judiciary went on an offensive against reformist politicians after the elections. Khatami, who disliked confrontations, expressed public frustration with the limited authority of his office to counteract these negative actions.

Khatami expressed doubts whether he ought to run for reelection in 2001, but finally decided to do so; he was reelected with 70 percent of the vote. During his second term, Khatami's emphasis was not so much on reform policies, although he still tried to push these, but rather on maintaining domestic calm. That is, he tried to avoid situations that would lead to clashes, verbal and/or physical, between reformists and conservatives. Although Khatami remained the titular head of the Dovum-e Khordad movement, many reformist politicians openly criticized him for failing to provide them active support and thereby effectively allowing the opponents of reform to gain the political initiative. In this respect, their disappointment was especially acute in the winter of 2004, when the council of guardians, a body that vets the Islamic credentials of candidates for political office, disqualified more than one-third of the candidates for the parliamentary elections, including the leading reformist politicians who had been elected to the Majles in 2000. Khatami's inability or unwillingness to intervene in what many reformists perceived to be an unfair or even illegal process and the subsequent electoral success of the conservatives in winning a large majority of seats demonstrated, for many reform politicians, the political impotence of their president. Khatami himself seemed weary of politics by the time his second term ended in the summer of 2005. He declined to accept a postpresidential appointment to the influential expediency council, which advises Khamenehi and the government on policy, and confined his activities to writing and participating in scholarly and human rights conferences.


Khatami's impact outside Iran was significant, as both politicians and scholars in all major countries found his ideas about the compatibility of Islam with civil society, democracy, and human rights appealing. Indeed, with respect to foreign policy Khatami initially had a freer hand to try to effect changes in the way Iran conducted its relations with other countries because many of his conservative opponents generally viewed tension-free ties with other nations as good for Iran's international trade. One of Khatami's primary concerns was the rhetoric about a clash of civilizations that became popular in the West in the aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union; to counter this discourse, he put forth the idea of a dialogue of civilizations. With the president's encouragement, government-affiliated think tanks and universities sponsored conferences and seminars to which international scholars were invited to join in discussions about cross-cultural dialogue. In fact, the idea of such a dialogue actually was embraced by the United Nations, which eventually declared a year of dialogue of civilizations. The overall general policy of conciliation resulted in improved relations with Iran's neighbors and with European countries. However, Khatami's efforts to reach out to the United States seemed too timid and cautious in Washington, whereas back in Tehran, a high level of suspicion about U.S. intentions remained among the conservatives, their distrust having been reconfirmed by the dual containment policy targeting both Iran and Iraq and proclaimed by the administration of President Bill Clinton in 1993, then further reinforced by U.S. economic sanctions in 1995. Washington, for its part, also was hesitant to engage diplomatically with Khatami, although there was recognition that he represented a new political trend of moderation in Iran. In 2000, the Clinton administration did extend an olive branch when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright expressed regret for the U.S. role in the 1953 overthrow of the government of Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mossadeq, an incident that is perceived as one of national humiliation in Iranian historical memory. By 2000, however, Khatami was too weakened politically to follow up on this apology without the support of Khamenehi, who remained defiantly hostile to the United States.

A potential opportunity for normalization of relations with the United States—diplomatic relations had been severed in April 1980, during the hostage crisis, and not restored—came in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks in New York. Khatami issued public condolences for the victims and condemned as anti-Islamic any invocation of religion as justification for the use of violence against innocent civilians. He also authorized discrete cooperation with U.S. forces in Afghanistan, encouraged the Northern Alliance—Iran was the only government to recognize the legitimacy of this anti-Taliban coalition—to work with the U.S. military, and used Iran's influence to get its Afghan allies to support the new Afghan government of hamid karzai that was set up at an international conference in Berlin in December 2001. But all these efforts bore bitter fruit in late January 2002 when U.S. President George W. Bush declared that Iran was a member of an axis of evil. With Washington seemingly fixated on the prospects of regime change in Iran (and also Iraq), Khatami's talk of dialogue was drowned in a flood of patriotic indignation, stoked by Khamenehi and the conservatives who revived the revolutionary rhetoric of the United States as the Great Satan bent on destroying Iran's independence.


mahmoud ahmadinejad, who was elected president to succeed Khatami in June 2005, did not share his predecessor's ideas about domestic or global dialogue. Furthermore, the Dovum-e Khordad movement had lost its political appeal and was an impotent challenger to the new president. Yet many of the cultural and social changes that had occurred during Khatami's eight-year tenure had become too rooted to be undone. As Iranian analyst Karim Sadjadpour has observed, the conservatives are more intent on preserving their access to the influence and privileges of political power than on enforcing strict behavioral codes that most of Iran's eighteen-to-thirty-year-olds reject; as long as there is minimal interference with their private lives and no strong political party to mobilize them, they are likely to acquiesce to conservative governance. Khatami himself has not demonstrated any sustained interest in creating institutions to push for the democratization of politics that he championed. However, he does remain engaged in his global dialogue project, and in January 2006, he opened the new nongovernmental organization, International Center of Dialogue among Civilizations, of which he is director. He travels around the world, including to the United States in 2006, to give speeches promoting the need for and value of dialogue. Meanwhile, his popularity among intellectuals, especially those who believe in the compatibility of Islamic principles with democratic values, remains strong, not just in Iran but also in most countries with Muslim majority populations, where his books and articles can be found translated into such languages as Arabic, Bengali, Malay, Turkish, and Urdu.


Dialogue among civilizations requires listening to and hearing from other civilizations and cultures, and the importance of listening to others is by no means less than talking to others…. A profound, thoughtful and precise dialogue with Islamic civilization would be helpful in finding fair and practical solutions to some of the grave problems that beset the world today…. Dialogue is such a desirable thing, because it is based on freedom and freewill. In a dialogue, no idea can be imposed on the other side. In a dialogue, one should respect the independent identity of the other side and his or her independent ideological and cultural integrity. Only in such a case can dialogue be a preliminary step leading to peace, security and justice.



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―――――――. Islam, Liberty and Development. Binghamton: Institute for Global Cultural Studies, State University of New York, 1998.

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                                Eric Hooglund