No sooner had Iranian President Mohammad Khatami wrapped up his unprecedented interview with Cable News Network Wednesday night when American pundits and politicians began dissecting every syllable, parsing every sentence, looking for hidden meaning in the call for improved relations between the hostile nations.
Such skepticism is healthy, the details and tone of Khatami’s message have troubling elements, but those concerns must not drown out his central point — more than two decades of enmity between the United States and Iran must end. It has benefited no one, it has gone on far too long.
Khatami clearly is an extraordinarily savvy politician. Savvy enough to get elected, as a moderate, in a country still well stocked with reactionaries. Savvy enough to call for harmless exchanges of scholars, artists and tourists before serious exchanges of political issues.
And certainly savvy enough to use American television to talk to the folks back home, to make it subtly clear that, while both countries are at fault, the Shah-supporting Great Satan is a bit more at fault than is the hostage-taking Cradle of Terrorism, to suggest that, while it would be nice for Washington to stop trying to isolate Iran politically and economically, it really doesn’t matter all that much to Tehran.
While such rhetorical inflections, along with his assertion that Tel Aviv calls the shots for much of American foreign policy, do rub the wrong way, Khatami must be given a little room to maneuver. In reaching out, he also is sticking his neck out, and there’s plenty of hard-line ayatollahs who would love to chop away.
The reality, of course, is that Iran needs this rapprochement more than America does. It is Iran, after all, that lives in the grip of fundamentalists who have perverted the noble and peaceful religion of Islam, it is Iran that has the murderous lunatic Saddam Hussein as a next-door neighbor. The United States knows it, Iran knows it, but there is no reason to make stating the obvious a precondition of progress.
The United States’ concerns about Iran — its role in supporting terrorism, its possible production of weapons of mass destruction, its stated commitment to the destruction of Israel — are genuine, and Khatami’s gesture makes addressing those concerns at least a possibility. Scholarly lecturers, dance troupes and camera-toting tourists cannot break down the wall of mistrust between the United States and Iran, but they can put a few cracks in it.