Former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami will speak at La Trobe University's Centre for Dialogue tomorrow. According to centre director Joseph Camilleri, Khatami's legacy was significant because he "articulated a powerful and coherent message in defence of democracy and human freedom".
"Just as significant though generally ignored by the Bush administration, was Khatami's opening to the West," Camilleri argues. "He pursued an active diplomacy with western Europe, visited the US, strongly condemned terrorism, mended fences with Arab neighbours and seemed prepared to curb Iran's uranium enrichment program."
No doubt Khatami will draw headlines, but the Khatami described by Camilleri is a myth, and a dangerous one at that.
True, when Khatami emerged on the world stage, he was a breath of fresh air. Diplomats applauded when, after his swearing-in on August 4, 1997, he declared: "We are in favour of a dialogue between civilisations and a detente in our relations with the outside world." Khatami became the toast of European capitals, with prime ministers tripping over themselves to host him in their capitals.
On March 9, 1999, during his first visit to Europe, Khatami told the Italian parliament: "Tolerance and exchange of views are the fruits of cultural richness, creativity, high-mindedness and harmony. One must recognise this opportunity." Back in Iran, though, his message was different. He banned Israeli and Jewish non-government organisations from participating in the Tehran preparatory meeting ahead of the UN Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.
Then, speaking to Iranian television on October 24, 2000, he declared: "If we abide by human laws, we should mobilise the whole Islamic world for a sharp confrontation with the Zionist regime. If we abide by the Koran, all of us should mobilise to kill."
Alas, such incitement was not mere rhetoric, and to suggest, as Camilleri does, that Khatami condemns terrorism is at best half-true. Khatami may have offered condolences after the September11, 2001, terror attacks in New York and Washington, but the bipartisan 9/11 Commission subsequently found that his government had granted transit across Iran to at least eight of the 14 Saudi hijackers who had trained in Afghanistan's al-Qa'ida camps.
Nor is the problem simply passive support for terrorism.
Soon after US, Australian and European diplomats brokered a ceasefire between Israelis and Palestinians in December 2001, Iranian officials loaded 50 tonnes of advanced weaponry aboard the Karine-A, a Palestinian freighter.
Eight years later, Khatami continues to side with rejectionists. In a speech on December 28 last year, he berated "Arab countries (that) signed treaties with Israel".
While proponents of dialogue latch on to Khatami's call, the former president's own aides depict his dialogue as tactical, and insincere. Speaking on June14 last year, Abdollah Ramezanzadeh, Khatami's former spokesman, told a university audience: "We had one overt policy, which was one of negotiation and confidence-building, and a covert policy, which was continuation of the activities."
At a campaign stop in Bushehr on March 8 this year, Khatami himself angrily took on those who would credit incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for Iran's nuclear success.
"Do you really think that the technological advances in the nuclear field only have been reached during the last couple of years?" he asked.
Khatami has a point. He deserves credit for Iran's nuclear and military advance. European officials eagerly answered Khatami's call for dialogue. While Germany said discussions would tackle difficult issues such as human rights and proliferation, trade became the basis for engagement, in the belief that integrating Iran into the world economy would moderate the country. Between 2000 and 2005, the European Union nearly tripled its trade with the Islamic Republic. The Khatami administration injected about 70 per cent of the hard currency windfall into nuclear and military programs.
The idea that Khatami was "prepared to curb uranium enrichment" is counterfactual nonsense.
It was under Khatami's watch that the Islamic Republic built a covert enrichment facility at Natanz, acknowledged by Khatami only after satellite photos confirmed its existence.
And, while many Bush administration critics embraced a November 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that found the Iranian government had ceased work on a nuclear weapons program, they ignored the same document's finding that at the height of Khatami's dialogue, Iranian scientists laboured secretly to build a nuclear warhead.
Khatami is credited with tolerance, during his tenure as minister of culture and Islamic guidance, but he censored more than 600 books and banned several dozen publications.
Ironically, as president, he banned the memoir of ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's deputy, ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, because Montazeri described the purge of several thousand political prisoners in 1988, a year in which Khatami, as a member of the ruling council, would have at least administratively aided the executions. Montazeri remains under house arrest.
More broadly, recourse to capital punishment - including against homosexuals and minors - increased under Khatami. While Khatami's admirers outside Iran praise his defence of human freedom, those in Iran are more cynical. Towards the end of Khatami's presidency, a joke circulated in Tehran: On her wedding night, an Iranian woman told her husband that their marriage was actually her second. "Don't worry," she assured him. "I'm still a virgin." "How can that be?" her husband asked. "Well, my first husband was like Khatami. He kept promising to do it, but eight years later he hadn't done anything."
Many of Khatami's foreign supporters suggest he was sincere in his desire for reform, but Iran's power circles constrained him. Iranian civil society is not so sure.
On February 27 this year, Iranian civil rights activist Emad al-Din Baghi recounted how "Khatami forgot all his promises of reforms" on his election.
Answering hardline critics in Qom last month, Khatami affirmed that his support for the revolution trumped any other principle. So much for the "defence of democracy".
It is easy to be fooled by appearances and see Khatami as a moderate when juxtaposed with firebrand President Ahmadinejad. Alas, the differences are only of style, not substance. Take the Holocaust: Ahmadinejad proudly questions it; Khatami simply invites Holocaust revisionists such as Frederick Toben, a retired German schoolteacher living in Australia, to Tehran to present his ostensible findings that the Auschwitz death camp was too small to conduct mass killing of Jews.
As University of Virginia political scientist George Michael noted in a 2007 Middle East Quarterly article, "it was under Khatami that Iranian policy shifted from anti-Zionism to unabashed anti-Semitism".
Dialogue is not always a panacea. Not every partner is sincere. While some are too radical or violent to engage, the more dangerous are those such as Khatami, who have mastered the art of public relations. They should be judged on their actions, however, rather than their rhetoric.
To do otherwise is simply to become a useful idiot enabling the furtherance of values and actions antithetical to liberalism, tolerance and democracy.