khatami 298 ap.
(photo credit: AP [file])
Former Iranian president Muhammad Khatami may be greeted by a police summons when he arrives in Britain this week to pick up an honorary degree from a Scottish university.
The invitation to the former Iranian leader to visit Britain, designed to open backdoor channels between the West and Iran's theocratic oligarchy, may collapse under the weight of mounting protests from politicians, human rights activists and Jewish community leaders.
The former president will be the most senior Iranian political figure to visit Britain since the shah's 1972 visit, and comes as Britain and the United States are pursuing sanctions through the United Nations Security Council over Iran's nuclear ambitions.
London's Metropolitan Police has confirmed to The Sunday Times that it was investigating a complaint filed by two Iranian exiles that they were unlawfully imprisoned and tortured by the Khatami regime.
Khatami could be brought to trial in the UK for crimes against humanity committed by his government during his tenure as president of Iran from 1997 to 2005. Section 134 of Britain's Criminal Justice Act 1988 states that torture wherever committed worldwide is criminal under British law and triable in the United Kingdom. As a private citizen, the former Iranian president would not be immune from questioning or prosecution during his UK visit.
Khatami will be in Britain to receive an honorary doctor of laws degree from St. Andrews University on Tuesday, where he is scheduled to open the university's Institute for Iranian Studies, which will house 12,000 books donated by Sadegh Kharazi, Iran's former ambassador to France. The following day he is scheduled to travel to London to deliver a speech at Chatham House on his interfaith work as president of the International Foundation for Dialogue among Civilizations.
A spokesman for St. Andrews told The Jerusalem Post, "President Khatami's attempts to nurture communication and understanding between faiths, cultures and civilizations represent an opportunity to address and resolve conflicts by talking, rather than by aggression." This "approach offers a courageous and refreshing alternative" to the current international scene, the spokesman said, noting the university's decision to honor Khatami "was subject to the normal academic processes and scrutiny and was taken after the widest consultation with experts in modern Iran and beyond."
The proffered degree has prompted outrage from Britain's National Union of Students, which has promised to greet the Khatami with demonstrations unless Teheran frees an Iranian student activist jailed during after a 1999 pro-democracy protest.
Nor is Britain's scholarly community happy with the decision. Islamic scholar Dr. Denis MacEoin of Newcastle University stated there was "still time for St. Andrews to reconsider this misguided decision to honor a member of one of the most intolerant regimes in modern history. Interfaith harmony has been the last thing on Mr. Khatami's mind, and is still grossly abused in an Iran ruled by bigots," he said.
Ephraim Borowski, director of the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities, stated that "to award an honorary degree to such a man is to devalue the concept of honor itself. If they understand the word, St. Andrews University should do the honorable thing and withdraw the offer."
An aide to the chancellor of St. Andrews, Liberal Democrat Party leader Sir Menzies Campbell, who had been scheduled to present the award, defended his involvement in the ceremony in an October 25 e-mail to constituents. "It is not part of Sir Menzies' role as chancellor to decide who should receive doctorates but he is assured that the university did not take the decision lightly." However on Friday Campbell dropped out of the awards ceremony citing the press of parliamentary business. His withdrawal came the day after 12 members of the House of Lords called on St. Andrews to cancel the visit, citing Khatami's complicity in Iran's "theocratic and brutal regime."
"It is ironic that Khatami should be invited to a university with as rich a history as St. Andrews, when during his presidency the Iranian regime responded to the just demand of students for democracy and against repression by ordering vicious dawn attacks on university dormitories," the letter said.
However, the St. Andrews Students Association has defended the invitation saying the former Iranian president was a reformer who had "adopted a brave stance to promote liberal values in the face of great adversity." The image of Khatami as the moderate voice among the dozen clerics at the top of Iran's power structure has prompted some foreign policy experts to call for back channel talks with Teheran to strengthen internal opposition to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Last month Khatami burnished his progressive credentials on a 12-day tour of the United States. Speaking at Harvard University, he condemned religious terrorism, saying, "One cannot and ought not engage in violence in the name of any religion." At Washington's National Cathedral he called for a renewed interfaith dialogue amongst the monotheistic faiths. "Great religions, particularly Islam, Judaism and Christianity, can help mankind solve modern problems and challenges by a return to their vital, vibrant and common essence," he said.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, President George W. Bush stated he had personally approved Khatami's visa because he wanted to hear what the Iranian leader "had to say" and to gauge the mood in Teheran.
The Daily Telegraph reported on October 10 the US government had authorized secret overtures to the Iranian leadership through Khatami to explore possible diplomatic resolutions to Western concerns over Teheran's nuclear ambitions, a claim denied by State Department officials.
St. Andrews told the Post Britain's Foreign Office "is aware of the visit and we have had discussions with officials about the mechanics of the visit." No official meetings between Khatami and the British government are planned however, a government spokesman noted.
On September 14, Dr. Ali Ansari, who will head the new Iranian studies department at St. Andrews, urged a campaign of quiet diplomacy with elements of the Iranian regime at a Chatham House briefing.
Western attempts to "demonize" Ahmadinejad and focus on the nuclear threat had led to missed opportunities for d tente, he argued. The Western reaction to Ahmadinejad had contributed to the current impasse as his popularity among the masses had been handed to him by "Western incoherent and incompetent policies." MacEoin told the Post Western attempts to find moderates in Teheran were not likely to succeed. "Western governments may be selecting someone who only seems a 'moderate' when compared with someone like Ahmadinejad. What the West needs is a genuine reformer, but they won't find anyone who is alive, not in prison, or has influence," he said.
American Enterprise Institute scholar Dr. Michael Ledeen was skeptical of the prospects of a diplomatic success as "Iran intends, as Ahmadinejad recently put it, to 'destroy Anglo-Saxon civilization.' I don't think rational people can possibly believe we can negotiate away the issues that led Iran to declare war on us 27 years ago, and has waged ever since," he said.