Philosopher President

His speech was couched in erudite philosophical terms. But when Mohammed Khatami delivered his keynote address to the political and business elites gathered in Davos on Wednesday, there was no mistaking the Iranian president's political subtext. "Democratic norms are not identical packaged goods ready for export," Khatami said at the formal opening session of the World Economic Forum's annual meeting here. "True partnership calls for genuine dialogue."

Khatami could have been expressing disapproval of Washington's plans for setting up Iraq's next government. Or he could have been referring to the turmoil in his own country, where several ministers resigned today to protest the exclusion of reformists from next month's parliamentary elections. His central message, however, was unambiguous: he wants governments to engage in dialogue because he believes it avoids resentment and promotes a culture of human rights. "The miracle of dialogue is necessary for global security," said Khatami. "The key to the survival of humankind is being together, going along with each other and talking to each other."

Khatami spoke in sweeping brush strokes about the impact of knowledge, history and poverty on current global relations. The discovery of America, "the New World," he noted, had created new opportunities for Europe and fostered intellectual enlightenment. "The world today needs the same spirit of partnership that pervaded the relations between Europe and America in those days," he said.

Khatami, whose speeches tend to be characterized by oblique references, did not spell out whether he was talking about the divisions between Washington and Europe over Iraq or whether he was signaling his own willingness to improve relations with the United States. "Politics," he theorized, "is the art of creating the highest degree of reconciliation between the ideal and the possible."

Nor did he make any direct references to the other pressing hot-button issues affecting his country. He did not mention Iraq by name. He did not discuss democratizing Iran beyond his general comments about the nature of democracy. He did not talk about his government's recent signing of a protocol allowing the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to make snap inspections-or allegations that it is still involved in uranium enrichment. (He did, however, confront these questions more directly at a subsequent press conference, denying that Iran was seeking weapons of mass destruction or that it had received nuclear materials from North Korea.)

Khatami's speech seemed to draw a thoughtful response from Davos delegates. "I think he made a good impression," Harinder Kohli, CEO of Centennial Group Holdings, a Washington-based policy advisory group, told NEWSWEEK. "It was an unusual speech, but the main thing is not what his words were, but the fact that he came here at all."

Certainly Khatami will still have plenty of opportunity to talk over policy in the less public forums that characterize Davos. One of his key bilateral meetings is with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, and Iran's nuclear plans are sure to be on the agenda. Straw praised Khatami's speech as an "extraordinarily broad canvas" that "says something about the breadth of [his] intelligence." "He was right to say that democracy was a human experience, not a Western invention," Straw told the meeting.

Earlier, Straw addressed another of the topics dominating Davos: the future of Iraq. Life for Iraqis had improved slowly but steadily in recent months, he said, with achievements like putting 45,000 Iraqi police back on duty, 17,000 reconstruction projects in progress and millions of text books distributed to schools. "Whatever the differences of a year ago, the whole international community [now] stands behind the Iraqi people," he told a panel discussion. The British diplomat said the aim was to establish "a more stable, internationally recognized federal government."

Meanwhile, despite the interest in Iraq and Iran, the biggest crowd-puller of the opening day was neither Khatami nor Straw. That distinction went to Bill Clinton, a Davos regular whose lunchtime address was so oversubscribed it spilled out into hallways and overflow rooms. The former U.S. president delivered an impassioned plea to business leaders "to make a bigger difference in the things that we care about." That involved creating integrated systems and infrastructures around the world. "You change the reality of human history by systematic action," he said. "Our job is to move the world from interdependence to integration." Clinton may not have waxed quite as philosophical as Khatami, but his audience loved it anyway.