Newsreal: Lord of the dance

The real significance of Iranian President Khatami's appearance may be in its implicit message to Iranians themselves, says an anthropologist and expert in Iranian culture.

Published January 12, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

While U.S. policy makers pore through the text for hints and meanings, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami's interview with CNN last week made things perfectly -- if subtly -- clear to Iranians: Their nation is liberalizing from within and extending itself further into the international community.

The message was conveyed not so much by the substance of Khatami's remarks as by the style of the interview itself. Both the president and CNN's Christiane Amanpour are figures with one foot in Iran and one foot in the international community. Amanpour represents a U.S. news organization. Khatami is an intellectual knowledgeable about Euro-American history and philosophy. Their coming together on television was itself a symbolic bridging of the gap that still exists between Iran and the non-Islamic world.

A major symbolic clue for Iranians had to do with the interviewer herself. Amanpour is a source of pride for Iranians. As an award-winning journalist of Iranian extraction, her mere presence in the presidential palace constituted an important statement about the Iranian government's liberalizing attitudes toward women in positions of importance.

More important, she wore a head covering for the interview -- but significantly did not cover her hair entirely, as would be required of a woman in Iran (where women's hair is considered erotically provocative according to conservative Islamic views).

Islamic officials might have been able to insist that she conform fully to the most conservative dress standards as a condition of the interview, but they clearly did not. Iranian citizens will read the fact that she only partially observes the letter of the female dress code as a sign of liberalization on the part of their own government. It will be interesting to see if Iranian women attempt to follow Amanpour's example in head-covering -- such small changes in behavior often presage much larger shifts in social attitudes and policy in Iran.

As for President Khatami, although he was in full clerical garb, his language was remarkable. He was relaxed and spoke in nearly colloquial Persian, in contrast to the highly Arabicized, convoluted Persian, intoned in sermonlike pronouncements, that has long been a principal characteristic of Iran's religious leadership.

In Iran, rhetorical styles are keys to political attitudes. A politician talking like a cleric advertises his conservative leanings. By eschewing such language, Khatami identified himself as something new -- a cleric who doesn't sound like one. Overall, Khatami handled Amanpour's questions like a seasoned diplomat. He was frank, forthcoming and not condescending. One hopes that U.S. foreign policy analysts noticed that this leader is qualitatively different from those who have preceded him.

Washington also needs to pay attention to Khatami's subtle message about how a potential U.S.-Iran rapprochement could proceed. U.S. officials reacted strongly against Khatami's call for "people to people" rather than government-to-government diplomacy at this stage. But what Khatami is really saying is that Iran will not enter into communication with the U.S. government as a lower-status partner. Iran sees the
relationship between the two nations before the revolution of 1978-79 as
one of patron (U.S.) to client (Iran), all engineered by the Shah without
any Iranian public input. The current regime vehemently rejects this
relationship and Khatami must defend this position in order to
retain his own power.

This means that Iran will respond to U.S. accusations of wrongdoing and support of terrorism only with denial and counter-accusations, because to accept the American
accusations, even as a topic for discussion, places the U.S. in the
higher-status position.

On the other hand, Khatami provided a way to talk about
matters of mutual concern without pressing the hot button of status
difference. In the interview, he brought out analogies in U.S.
history for all of the bad behavior of which the Iranians have been
accused. In effect he was saying: "We can discuss our mutual pasts in a
common framework without needing to determine who was the wrongdoer."

In the same way, Khatami's call for people-to-people contacts was a way
of opening discussion between Americans and Iranians without confronting
the status-guilt problems that loom in government-to-government contacts
favored by Washington officials.

In short, Khatami wants to eschew the need to admit guilt and
place Iran in a lower status position as conditions for renewed dialogue with
the U.S. There is precedent for this in the business world, where
companies sued for liability quietly fix the problems they have with
consumers "out of court," without admitting guilt.

This could be a model for making progress with Iran. A mediated
dialogue (Saudi Arabia has wisely volunteered to serve as mediator), no
requirements for admission of guilt and a commitment to fix global
problems of mutual interest could put the two nations on the road to
healthy communication. As a start, the U.S. would be wise to graciously
endorse the Iranian leader's suggestion to wide "people-to-people" contacts.

Critics have pointed out that Amanpour didn't ask the really tough questions, for example concerning the fatwa against writer Salman Rushdie.
But her interview with Khatami made a
significant step toward establishing just such non-governmental dialogue.
And for Iranians, the message is quite clear: Iranian officials no longer take
a negative view of talking to Americans. If nothing else results from
this event, conveying this message will have been a significant

By William O. Beeman

William O. Beeman teaches anthropology at Brown University and is the author of "Language, Status And Power In Iran" (Indiana University Press).

MORE FROM William O. Beeman

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Cnn Iran Islam Middle East Religion