February 2, 2021
In the second half of the year 1997, efforts by Iran’s then-president to improve relations with the United States were defeated in the usual way: at the hand of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic.
Mohammad Khatami had won the presidential election against the will of Ali Khamenei. In December that year, Khatami hosted a meeting of leaders of Islamic countries, a notable success in itself after just four months in office. After the summit, Khatami sent a televised message to the American people through CNN, which was the most powerful sign to the United States in the history of the Islamic Republic that it wished to normalize relations.
The interview with the Iranian president was broadcast almost simultaneously at midnight Tehran time, and despite the inconvenient hour, many stayed up to watch it. Khamenei’s response to the televised message, his assessment of why Khatami had done it, and his attempt to counteract its consequences then became pivotal moments in the history of the Islamic Republic’s relations with the United States.
In his interview and address to the American people, then-President Khatami, contrary to the official position of the Islamic Republic, called Iran’s hostage-taking and occupation of the US embassy in 1979 “incorrect”. He went on to say Americans were a “civilized” people and the formation of American civilization was the result of the efforts of people like “Martyr” Abraham Lincoln.
The term “wall of distrust”, which quickly became widespread and remembered, was first used by Khatami in this interview. The Iranian premier called on the United States to take action to remove the “wall” to begin a new era in bilateral relations between the two countries. In this interview, the then-President of Iran suggested that while formal relations between the two countries remained severed, the people of Iran and the United States should have try to engage in greater dialogue and get to know each other.
The expressions used in this interview were new at the time. The next day, Tehran newspapers were sharply divided: some welcomed the premises put forward by Khatami while others attacked them mercilessly. Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani wrote in his diary after the interview that a number of politicians who came to him saw the talks as having “weakened the leadership” and being a sign of a “split” in the Islamic Republic over its relations with the United States.
Khatami’s signal to the US was taken seriously by the administration of then-President Bill Clinton and a message was sent to the government of the Islamic Republic through the Swiss embassy in Tehran, the American office of interest in Iran.
Hashemi Rafsanjani wrote in his memoirs of December 27 that after the Expediency Council meeting on that day, Khatami had come to him and announced that “‘a message from the US government has reached the Swiss embassy stating that they are ready to negotiate. They have drawn up the topics that can be raised and they have also introduced their people for negotiations. They have said the talks should be announced, and that Iran can raise any issue it wants; almost what they’ve said in the public statements’. He wanted advice on the quality of the answer. I told him to consult the Leader first and then negotiate.”
A Delayed Reply from Iran
In his memoirs of January 4, Rafsanjani writes that Hassan Rouhani, then-secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, had visited him and said he was consulted about the message to the United States, which showed that almost a week after the US message had been received, they had not sent a reply. But the same evening, Rafsanjani met with Ayatollah Khamenei, and it is clear from what he writes how the leader of the Islamic Republic felt about the matter.
“I was the guest of Ayatollah Khamenei at Iftar. On the issue of negotiations with the United States, which is the issue of the day, he was previously strongly opposed to it. He told Mr. Khatami that in his interview, he had clearly separated the US government from the American people and because of the CNN’s vast propaganda he felt that there was a plan on the agenda.”
One week later, Abbas Akhundi, the IRIB’s political deputy who later became Minister of Roads and Urban Development under Rouhani’s government, visited Rafsanjani and told him about the broadcast of Khatami’s CNN interview. “Ayatollah Khamenei was not satisfied, but he did not say anything to the IRIB. He claimed that the left wing was trying to weaken the position of the leadership, and they were trying to raise such issues among the people to imply that the leadership was against solving their problems…
“Mr. Khatami came [to me] last night, worried about the consequences of his interview with the CNN network inside the country, especially considering the recent sharp criticism of the newspapers Resalat, Jomhuri Eslami, and Kayhan as well as some MPs, which had focused on his regretting the occupation of the American embassy and praising the civilization of the American people.”
It is clear from the manuscripts that Khatami’s government had still not yet responded to the letter from the Clinton administration. “He has consulted about the text of the response to the US message sent through the Swiss embassy. The text they have prepared is a bit harsh in his opinion. It was supposed to be adjusted. His concern is justified; if the newspapers continue their criticisms this will weaken the government. Today, some of them have resorted to insults and defamation.”
Khamenei Attacks Rapprochement in Public
One month and three days after Khatami’s interview with CNN, on January 16, 1998, Ayatollah Khamenei was due to preach at Friday prayers in Tehran. In his second sermon, he attacked the possibility of negotiations between Iran and the United States. Contrary to what Khatami had suggested, Khamenei said the US was Iran’s adversary, and any suggestion of Iran reconsidering its relations with the United States was “completely baseless and illusory.”
“I listened carefully [to the interview],” he said. “What needed to be said about negotiating with the United States was said… I prayed for both him and the Secretary of State and other officials who took a stand on these issues. Some aspects may be related to tastes, others may be related to tone. But we have nothing to do with them. What was fundamental and important were the issues related to the relationship, negotiations, and the Zionist government, which was well said; it was good. Now, if the enemy wants to admit these words, which are against his will, he can. What else do we expect from the enemy? It is wrong to think that Iran’s negotiations with the United States will end the economic blockade or the D’Amato Act.”
The D’Amato Act was a ban on large-scale investment in Iran’s oil industry, which was later not implemented by the Clinton administration. Large oil companies such as France’s Total did invest in Iran’s oil and gas industry. However, Khamenei’s fierce speech destroyed the new atmosphere that was taking shape between Iran and the United States.
“Today,” writes Rafsanjani, “Ayatollah Khamenei gave his speech at Friday prayers and attacked the United States savagely, condemning the idea of negotiating with the United States more strongly than before. Due to the propaganda inside and outside the country after Mr. Khatami’s interview about Iran’s drawback, although Khamenei paid tribute to the president, it is clear that these words were made in order to prevent rapprochement with the United States.
“Naturally in internal and external interpretations, these differences between the Leadership and the president will be noted. Last night, Mr. Nategh Nouri also said that the Leadership’s opposition to softness against the United States causes some people to say that the Leadership does not allow the foreign policy situation to be corrected, nor for the country’s problems to be solved… That is why it was not expedient for the Leadership to have said anything in this respect.”
Disappointment and a Change of Direction
According to Hashemi Rafsanjani’s memoirs, and also as quoted by Nategh Nouri, Ali Mohammad Besharati, a former interior minister and a figure close to Khamenei, had known exactly what the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic would say in Friday prayers. Moreover, he had apparently told the leader: “The meteorological view is that Friday will be cold and it is better for you to not to go to Friday prayers” – but Khamenei had simply said he would wear more clothes.
Two days after Ayatollah Khamenei’s Friday prayers, Sabah Zanganeh, an adviser to the then-Iranian foreign minister, visited Rafsanjani. The latter wrote: “At the Foreign Ministry, they are disappointed with the Leadership’s speech at Friday prayers and feel the detente plan has been disrupted.”
Rafsanjani’s writings in January cite various individuals opining on Khatami’s interview with CNN. One of them was Ali Agha-Mohammadi, a member of the Leader’s economic bureau and a member of the Expediency Council, who said one of the conditions for CNN’s interviewing Khatami had been not to put him on the spot regarding the image of Khamenei.
On January 20, four days after Khamenei’s Friday sermon, Mohammad Khatami attended an Ehya night lecture at Ruhollah Khomeini’s tomb. At the end of it, in an apparent abrupt change of take, he vehemently spoke out against the idea of relations with the United States.
Hashemi Rafsanjani writes in his memoirs that the speech surprised Western politicians, who saw it as contradictory. The assumption, he writes, was that Khatami had changed his tune “either out of fear of the opposition, or on the Leader’s orders.”
Ayatollah Khamenei, in his usual way – to whit, by speaking out publicly and intensely and to put pressure on the president with the mass communication tools at his disposal – had succeeded in cancelling any possibility of rapprochement with the United States. Twenty-three years after the interview, his position does not appear to have changed.