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Western Press Review: Commentaries Dissect Khatami's Italy Visit

By Don Hill, Dora Slaba, Aurora Gallego, and Anthony Georgieff

Prague, 11 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Western commentary considers Iranian President Mohammed Khatami's groundbreaking trip to Italy, which ends today, and differs over the level of hope that his outreach justifies.

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: Khatami just isn't a revolutionary

Josef Joffe, commenting in today's Sueddeutsche Zeitung, says that Khatami isn't any radical reformer, merely less fanatic than his colleagues in Tehran. Joffe writes: "When Iran's President Mohammed Khatami landed in Rome this week, it was the first time in 20 years that an Iranian president had traveled to a Western country -- the first time since Iran's Islamic revolution lead by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979. Like many firsts, Khatami's visit comes as a sign of hope in many parts of the world, where it is seen as a signal by Iran's reformist elements to the country's hard-line, inflexible mullahs who have everything -- power, the courts, the secret service, the army - everything except popular support."

Joffe writes: "The problem with Khatami is not, as so many Westerners seem to think, that he can't do what he wants to do as far as reforms go. The fact is, he just isn't a revolutionary waiting to topple the current old revolutionary regime. He is a steady, regular supporter of the Islamic regime, albeit not a fanatic." The commentary concludes: "But a fundamentalist counterstrike against his kid-glove efforts to open Iran's doors to the west is as good as guaranteed. The fundamentalist mullah-crats don't care about opening doors, modernizing and revitalizing the economy. They care about holding on to their power, nothing more."

BOSTON GLOBE: Khatami represents the movement for reform

The U.S. newspaper Boston Globe describes Khatami's role as representing one pole of Iranian opinion. The Globe says: "The contradictions of contemporary Iran can be portrayed as a race between two allegorical figures. One represents the movement for reform incarnated by President Mohammad Khatami [and the] allegorical figure racing against reform is Tehran's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and the missiles to deliver them."

The newspaper say: "On issues of foreign and military policy, there is a difference between Khatami and Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who recently condemned Yasser Arafat as a 'traitor and lackey of the Zionists.'"

The Globe warns: "If Khamenei or like-minded theocrats are still in power when Iran obtains nuclear weapons and the missiles to launch them at France and Italy as well as Israel and Turkey, then the European gamble will not look so clever. Similarly, if Khatami's reforms end up producing only more elected officials and the freedom to listen to rock 'n' roll, Europols such as Italian Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema will end up looking like duped appeasers."

DER STANDARD: Italian and French firms have spotted an auspicious moment

Vienna's Der Standard comments that the timing of Italy's opening to Iran is opportune, considering the United States' preoccupations elsewhere. The newspaper says: "Italy has long joined France with glee in entering the vacuum that has been left by the American and British firms who obediently adhered to the American Iran-Libyan sanctions. Europeans vie eagerly for investments in Iran. At the beginning of March the Italian Eni and the French Elf concluded a contract for [thousands of millions] of dollars for an exploitation of an oil field. An extremely auspicious moment, considering the Americans Iraq program, whose outcome should lead to the toppling of Saddam. The Italians and French can expect confidently that Washington will not create any difficulties with Iran, Iraqs neighbor."

AFTENPOSTEN: Things do look optimistic for Iran

In Norway, the newspaper Aftenposten editorializes that Khatami's trip and an audience with Pope John Paul signal that Iran is opening its doors. The newspaper says: "But his visit to Italy is as historic as it is controversial. Many of Italy's parliamentarians disapprove of it because of Iran's disrespect for human rights." The editorial adds that, even so: "Things do look optimistic for Iran. Both before and after his election as president in 1997, Khatami looked set to do away, bit by bit, with the religious fanaticism that had converted Iran into an international pariah. He is apparently willing to continue the present policies, and he is strongly supported by large chunks of the society, including Iran's women, whose everyday lot deteriorated considerably after the change-of-regime in 1979." The newspaper contends: "For the first time since 1979 the fanatics are on the defensive, and cannot afford to use their brutal methods without the risk of being punished. If the pragmatic Italians could pull Iran a step further in this direction, they would have made a contribution to its stability, predictability and development as a member of the international community."

LOS ANGELES TIMES: Protesters dismiss Khatami as a facade for a regime that is oppressive

Correspondent Richard Boudreaux writes from Fiesole, Italy, in a Los Angeles Times news analysis that Khatami's sensitivities may have interfered with his mission. Boudreaux writes: "Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, aiming to end his country's isolation, challenged an audience of European scholars [last] night to open a 'profound, thoughtful dialogue' with the Islamic world. Then he canceled a scheduled question-and-answer session and left the stage. Khatami's abrupt exit, which embarrassed his hosts at the European University Institute, appeared to undermine the message of his three-day visit."

Boudreaux says: "Despite Khatami's efforts for greater social and political freedom at home, protesters dismiss him as a facade for a regime that is oppressive, dangerous and unpopular."

NEW YORK TIMES: Khatami hopes to improve his government's credibility

At the beginning of Khatami's three-day visit, The New York Times' correspondent Alessandra Stanley wrote in a news analysis from Rome that Khatami hopes to attract trade and loans by rebuilding Iran's international image. She wrote: "Iran's faltering economy badly needs foreign investment, and Khatami hopes to improve his government's credibility and thus attract trade and loans. The United States, which still views Iran as supporting terrorism, has gingerly sought to encourage reform but has not lifted its trade embargo. Europe has proven far less diffident."

Stanley said: "Khatami, who was elected 21 months ago, has been immersed in a power struggle between moderates in the government and hard-line factions. He got a boost earlier this month when moderate candidates won control of local councils in the country's first municipal elections since 1979. But nationally, conservative clerics still dominate major institutions, and ultimate authority lies with the senior religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei."

LE FIGARO: The approach of France and Italy could be seen as cynical

And France's Le Figoro carries a commentary by Alain Peyrefitte, who says that Khatami's success may be vital for Iran's economic health. Peeyrefitte says: "Rome and Paris were not chosen randomly to be the first capitals of Europe where President Khatami comes in an attempt to show that Iran has changed. ELF and ENI recently signed joint, important oil contracts with Tehran. While the United States keeps its favorite practice of economic boycotting, France and Italy chose to help Iran open up, demonstrating that, for the sake of prosperity, it is possible to find links of reciprocity between the West and Iran. This approach could be seen as cynical. It nevertheless brings a theocracy to recognize that Islam is not sufficient to define Iranian interests."