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Iran: Changed Country Reaches Out At Islamic Conference

  • Bruce Pannier

Teheran, 12 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- On the first day, Tuesday, of the meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), the OIC chairmanship passed from the Moroccan head of state to the recently elected president, Mohammed Khatami, of the host country Iran. By the time the eighth OIC conference ended Thursday, it was evident that much more had changed than the presidency.

From the start of the meeting, it was clear Iran was pursuing a new policy toward the Islamic world. Before the end, Iran emerged a winner, Israel, as predicted, the loser, and the United States an enigma.

As most commentators have noted, the mere fact that 55 Islamic nations, more than half represented by their heads of state, attended a conference in Tehran was a diplomatic coup for Iran.

Though Iran sought better relations with the whole Islamic community, its image with the Arab states in particular was in need of repair. Some of these states have warm relations with the United States, whose view of Iran is well publicized. So the Iranian press paid great attention to the arrivals of Saudi Arabia's Prince Abdullah, and the emirs of Kuwait and Qatar, Jabar Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah and Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, respectively. Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Mussa also spent some time with Iranian officials.

Syrian President Hafiz Al-Assad put it into words when he said he carried to Iran, as he put it: "sentiments of solidarity and support from the Arab states."

Arab League Secretary General Dr. Ismat Abd-al-Majid gave an interview to the Cairo Voice of the Arabs in which he spoke of indications of understanding and rapprochement between the Arab and Islamic worlds. He added that Iran's bid to host the conference and the attendance demonstrated what he called, "readiness for cooperation on the part of Iran with Arab and Islamic countries."

The spiritual leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, echoed this sentiment saying "our belief has shaped us into a single entity; that is, the Islamic Ummah (community)." Though talk of a single community may be overoptimistic, the OIC meeting in Tehran seems to have brought the Islamic community closer together than they have been for some time.

Many of the problems of the Islamic countries have in the past stemmed from their failure to support one another. To a degree, the conference dealt with this. Malaysian Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamed used these words: "Not even one Islamic country could be a world power. In fact, no Islamic country is really strong enough to protect itself, much less protect other Islamic countries or Muslims that are cruelly treated."

The Indonesian daily newspaper Jakarta Media put it as follows in an article Monday: "The OIC is an organization of politically hot countries. Iran and Iraq, involved in an eight year war, have yet to resume friendly relations, while Turkey and Iraq are still locked over the Kurdish issue (and) the many conflicts within the OIC have rendered the organization powerless in neutralizing problems among its members."

That is why this latest meeting was so important.

While the final declaration condemned Israel, it equally condemned terrorism. What this means to Iran remains to be seen, but since the Iranian president is now also the chairman of the OIC for the next three years, the country is less likely to do anything rash which would then reflect upon the Islamic community as a whole. Though Ayatollah Khamenei gave the expected speech criticizing the United States, President Khatami followed by saying these different worlds and cultures have to be in contact and have dialogue to learn from each other.

This in turn has been interpreted by the international media to be a sign that the time is ripe for the United States and Iran to begin a dialogue.