Khatami: "The Country Can Be Run Better"

Reformist leader Mohammad Khatami had a good shot at unseating President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in elections scheduled for June 12. But he recently pulled out of the race in favor of another candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi. The ex-president spoke about the upcoming election with Newsweek's Maziar Bahari in Tehran. Excerpts:

Do you think it will be a fair election?
It depends what you mean by fair. Naturally, there are some problems in new democracies like ours, where some officials are still have a pre-democratic and despotic mentality. But I don't think vote rigging will change the outcome.

What can reformists achieve in the elections?
We object to legal restrictions which determine which candidates are qualified or disqualified. Even though those restrictions are legal, we oppose that filtering system. Despite all these restrictions, people's vote will be the determining factor. I think the presence of people in voting stations will show that Iran can be in a better position domestically and internationally. And that people's votes count in our country.

Do you think Mr. Moussavi could carry out the reforms people are asking from him?
No one can fully satisfy people's idealistic demands. No candidate will be able to do it. And our people know that quite well. Reformism is not a project that can be carried out overnight. I don't think all the slogans are right. Some of them are the result of people's emotions and not logic. People know that we can't achieve all our goals in a 3 or 4 year period.

Mr. Moussavi believes in freedom and people's participation in the governance of the country. So he will definitely prepare the ground for us, reformists, to work among the people even if we will not be in power. Reforms require certain plans and ideas that should be carried in the course of time. We couldn't reach the reformist objectives during my eight-year presidency. Our nation, I believe, has been fighting for reforms for the past 100 years. They have been fighting for three things: Freedom, independence and development. Our nation suffered from despotism, from foreign intervention and most importantly from lack of development.

Why are you such a popular politician?
I'm not 100 percent sure why. [Iranians] can never tolerate humiliation and despotism, like under the dictatorships before the revolution. So when a leader respects the people and regards them as his masters, then people respect that politician.

My best memory of my presidency was during my last year as president. I was delivering a speech in the university and there were many students who were shouting and screaming their criticisms against me. I told them that this is a great achievement of the revolution that a group of students are criticizing the president of the country, the second most important person in the country, openly and don't even worry about the consequences.

Why did you withdraw from the race?
It looked like people really wanted me to become a candidate because I seemed to have a better chance to win. I changed my mind when Mr. Moussavi became a candidate. Mr. Moussavi is one of the best politicians in Iran and we always wanted him to be more active. He used to refuse to take part in the elections but this time around he thought that he should get involved. Before my announcement I insisted that Mr. Moussavi should become a candidate. He didn't want to make a fast decision. I told him that he should announce his candidacy earlier rather than later. He has realized now that he should've entered the race earlier.

Is it true that you got a personal request from the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah ali Khamenei, to withdraw?
That's a baseless rumor.

You have said that many people are not happy with the current situation in the country. Why it that?
We had a revolution (in 1979) to establish an Islamic Republic based on people's votes. We have a historic opportunity to develop democracy in our country. I don't think our current government moves in a direction that can reach those objectives, even though it was elected by popular vote and I'm sure is has the best of intentions. Our interests can be protected better. We can use the resources in the country better than we are doing now. For example, the rising oil prices in the past few years could result in a real progress and development of the country. I think the overall situation in our country could be better than it is now. There may be some people who try to deceive people by distributing the income of the country among people and make them temporarily happy. But this will be counterproductive in the long-run. Because the decision had not been made in a democratic process, it would only result in inflation and even more poverty in the long run.

You recently mentioned that Iran has lost place in the region and in the world. Could you elaborate?
I think we could adopt more logical policies so that we could have more of a say in what is going on in our region. We are a great nation because of our culture and history. The Western countries think of Iran as a problem that should be solved. I always tell them, "You should see Iran as part of the solution rather than part of the problem." Iran is a country with rich history, civilization and culture that can help the West to improve the situation.

We, Iranians, also have to ask ourselves whether we have used this unique position we have to improve the situation in Iran. I do not think so. Because of some of our wrong policies, sanctions and pressures against Iran have increased. Iran has some principles for which it is ready to pay a price. The question is if it's necessary to pay such price.

What do you think about President Obama and his policies?
I think Mr. Obama truly wants to have a real change inside America and in terms of America's relations with the rest of the world. The question is whether these reforms will be cosmetic changes or substantial ones. The United States has a strong system of governance with its own policies and traditions, we can't expect one person to change the decision making process. I'm sure he will have many obstacles on his way to change the same way that we reformists have problems in Iran. So I think we should give Mr. Obama some time to carry out his plans. And I hope he has the courage to act upon his ideas for real change.

What are the main obstacles?
One of the biggest obstacles is the Israeli and Zionist lobby. They are a very strong lobby both financially and in the media. They can create negative publicity and psychological warfare at times when they see Israel's interest is in jeopardy. I'm reluctant to say, I don't know if it's true at the time of Mr. Obama or not, that I believe in the greatness of American nation and that Washington is its capital, but to many people around the world, the real capital of the United States is Tel Aviv. Many people think that Israel decides American foreign policy not the American government.

Do you think Iran and the United States can cooperate?
The history of the relations between the two countries is really dark. And it is America which is the main culprit. It's not only the Iranian government which is bitter about what America has done, ordinary people are also very angry about the past actions of the US. They remember events such as the 1953 coup ... and the sanctions and embargoes after the revolution.

This is the past. But if Iranians believe that the Americans want to change their policies and if some real steps are taken in that direction, then, we can forget the past temporarily and look forward to a better future. I hope Mr. Obama understands that the negative view of America in Iran doesn't only exist in the Iranian government but among the Iranian nation in general. I'm not saying that Iran hasn't done anything wrong. But the wrongs Iranians have done were direct results of what the Americans had done. For example, our young people took over the American embassy in an emotional revolutionary situation as a reaction. This will not be repeated because we have a stable government and the government won't allow this anymore.

President Obama has also talked about mutual respect.
I think Americans should also change their attitude toward the rest of the world. The United States thinks of itself as the "big brother" of the Europeans and the industrialized world and thinks of itself as the master of the Islamic and Third World countries. If this attitude changes, then we can sit down and decide what are the common interests of Iran and the United States.

What should be Obama's next step?
He should stop hypocritical policies. The U.S. condemns Palestinians as terrorists, but they don't condemn Israel, which openly acknowledges that it carries out assassinations. And the United States puts pressure on Iran to stop its nuclear progress even though it knows we don't have a bomb, and we don't even believe in developing a bomb. At the same time, there are countries to our east [Pakistan] and to our west [Israel] that have hundreds of nuclear bombs and are considered American allies. This is hypocrisy.

So the United States should negotiate with Iran with no preconditions?
Negotiating without any precondition is the only way to solve the disagreement on Iran's nuclear program. Our government has agreed to talk. We can certainly reach an agreement that will preserve Iran's right to develop its peaceful nuclear technology, and they can have guarantees that Iran is not after making atom bombs.

What should the American policy be vis-à-vis Iran's nuclear program?
The same thing that happened during my time. We had useful negotiations with the Europeans. They proposed package and we answered back. I told the Europeans that they shouldn't listen to the Americans and deliver what they had promised. Otherwise, Iranians may become suspicious that the Europeans don't really want to solve the problems and they just want to deny Iran of its natural rights. And I told them if Iran becomes suspicious it will change its nuclear policy. This is exactly what happened. Europeans showed weakness and the Americans put a lot of pressure on them. The main mistake was to send Iran's case to the United Nation's Security Council. They thought they could change Iran's policy by threats even though Iran has always reacted even more harshly when it is threatened.

The Europeans are saying that all negotiations were going well until Mr. Ahmadinejad started denying the Jewish Holocaust and threatening to wipe Israel off the map.
That's not right. The Europeans started their wrong policies during my time. And I had conciliatory rhetoric. I think we should avoid using words that can be provocative and endanger our interests. But I think the Europeans just use those words as an excuse for their own inaction.