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Visa Not Denied: On Mohammad Khatami’s upcoming visit to the United States.

Nina Shea

President Mohammad Khatami is best remembered in U.N. circles, not for human-rights conditions in Iran during his tenure, which were so abominable they were repeatedly condemned by the international body, but for a speech calling for a dialogue among the world’s civilizations and cultures. Thanks to Khatami, who proposed it, at the U.N. the year 2001 is known by the Orwellian designation, “The Year of Dialogue among Civilizations.” This week, Khatami will be back at the U.N. to expound on this theme of dialogue.

He will also embark on a propaganda tour of American campuses and be the honored guest speaker at the National Episcopal Cathedral in Washington. He will use these events to try to mobilize American support for holding a dialogue with Iran — dialogue without conditions of course, just as the current president of Iran favors in the current nuclear crisis.

Iran’s reform movement, which at first counted Khatami among their own, ended up bitterly denouncing him for not merely being ineffective as president of Iran, but for willingly serving as a democratic façade for its oppressive system. He will now be shilling for Iran’s hardline rulers directly with the American public. Khatami’s American travel beyond the diplomatic radius of the U.N. is made possible by a special U.S. visa, the first ever issued to someone of his rank from revolutionary Iran.

It is worth remembering that, Khatami’s insistence on dialogue between cultures notwithstanding, there has been none of it in revolutionary Iran. In addition to being listed as a terrorist state, and one of the triumvirates of the “axis of evil,” Khatami’s Iran was designated by the United States government as a “Country of Particular Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act — that is, one of the world’s worst religious persecutors. All of Iran’s religious minorities — Bahaiis, Assyrian Christians, Catholics, Anglicans, Armenians, Evangelicals, Mandeans, Jews, and Zoroastrians — have suffered. Their numbers have steadily dwindled as they have fled religious oppression in their homeland; the presence of the ancient Assyrians and Mandeans is approaching statistical insignificance.

The Bahai, who started as a reformist movement within Shiite Islam in Iran in the early 19th century, are seen as heretics. Over 200 of their leaders have been killed by the government, while some ten thousand have been purged from government employment and schools. They have had no rights to property, and can’t officially marry or be buried in their religion. According to law, their blood is “Mobah” — it can be spilled with impunity and no one can be punished for murdering them.

The other Abrahamic faiths, officially “protected” by the state, are forced to abide by Islamic rules and live in great insecurity. Christian and Jewish grocery shop owners have been required to post their religion on their store fronts. Jews, whose numbers have been reduced to about a third of their pre-1979 population, have faced relentless state-sponsored anti-Semitism. Some were arrested and put on trial for spying for Israel under Khatami, until being later freed after international protest. Christians have been vulnerable to apostasy charges, with some imprisoned and others killed by government-linked death squads.

But the persecution that is the hallmark of Iran’s theocratic regime affects not only non-Muslim minorities. Muslims who do not subscribe to Iran’s state doctrine of Jafari (Twelver) Shiism have also been subject to bigotry and persecution. Sunnis and Sufis have regularly been discriminated against and banned from teaching their religion, as well as, on occasion, detained and tortured for their religious beliefs. Those Shiites who dare to dissent from state orthodoxy, too, have been arrested and tried for the capital offense of blasphemy, for the “crime of thinking,” as one Iranian Shiite reformist teacher said at his 2004 trial. Hundreds of newspapers have been shut down and many writers and journalists punished, with some even killed, for their views under Khatami. Shiite women have been harshly restricted and treated as inferiors under state-enforced religious law. Cases of women stoned for adultery surfaced during Khatami’s tenure.

When Khatami speaks next week at the National Cathedral, do not expect tough questions to be put to him about the lack of dialogue among cultures or religious freedom within Iran. It will be a tightly controlled affair to provide a platform for this “man of peace and moderation,” as Khatami was referred to by an organizer for the Cathedral. It will not be open to protestors and concerned citizens. The State Department has advised the National Cathedral to make the event exclusive, “invitation only.”

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