He's Just Not That Scary

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Sometimes it’s hard being a prominent middle-eastern figure visiting Australia.

In 2003, Palestinian leader Dr Hanan Ashrawi visited Sydney to be awarded the Sydney Peace Prize. Her trip was mired in manufactured controversy. She was accused of all kinds of political crimes and misdemeanours, and pressure was placed on institutions that hosted her visit. Ashrawi was accused of being a virulent anti-Semite, an opponent of the two-state solution, an apologist for terror and even an Islamist agent (which is quite an achievement for a Christian).

Similar allegations are now being made about former Iranian President Sayed Mohammad Khatami, who will be visiting Canberra and Melbourne this month at the invitation of the Australian National University and La Trobe University’s Centre for Dialogue (CFD). The Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne, Dr Philip Freier, will also be hosting an interfaith meeting for him.

Freier is also president of the Council for Christians and Jews. One member of both the Council and CFD, John Searle, isn’t too happy about Khatami’s visit. Searle, who presides over the Jewish Community Council of Victoria (JCCV), is so unhappy that the Australian Jewish News reports that Searle "resigned his organisation’s membership of the [CFD]’s advisory board in protest".

You might wonder why Searle is making a fuss about Khatami’s visit only now. Surely he must have known about Khatami’s visit back in mid-February when CFD director Joseph Camilleri mentioned the visit in an op-ed for The Age. That op-ed ended with: "Mohammad Khatami will visit Melbourne next month at the invitation of the Centre".

In a letter to the CFD, Searle wrote that it was "not possible for the Victorian Jewish community to participate in an organisation ostensibly committed to dialogue when it hosts Sayed Mohammad Khatami, former president of Iran, a man whose views on the State of Israel are clearly inimical to true dialogue and peace". By this logic, Searle would also surely object to anyone hosting a visit by Israel’s new foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose recent election campaign and party platform has included depriving Arab Israelis (whether Christian, Muslim or Druze) of their citizenship. Such a brazenly racist policy can hardly foster true dialogue and peace.

Searle has made some extraordinary claims about Khatami, almost all of which can be rebutted by simple recourse to Israeli newspapers. For instance, Searle claimed Khatami is a holocaust denier. Yet in a 2006 interview with Time magazine (which was also reported in Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz) Khatami described the Holocaust as "an absolute fact, a historic fact".

Khatami went on to say that "[t]he Holocaust should not be, in any way, an excuse for the suppression of Palestinian rights." A host of other prominent Jews and Israelis have made similar statements, including prominent British MP Sir Gerald Kaufman.

And at least one Israeli newspaper has reported Khatami’s support for a two-state solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict. Even the hawkish right-wing Hoover Institution acknowledges the softening of Iran’s foreign policy which took place during Khatami’s rule.

Sadly, as former CIA operative Robert Baer told newmatilda.com recently, popular misconceptions of Iran persist, which range "from [it]being an Islamofascist state or a medieval throwback, to a country consumed with an irrational hatred of the West". Iranian realities are presented in only the vaguest monolithic terms, and rumour and innuendo are frequently presented as fact.

One famous case of this was in May 2006 when a Canadian newspaper published an opinion piece from American writer Amir Taheri, claiming the Iranian Parliament (or Majilis) passed legislation regulating dress codes for religious minorities.

Taheri’s story appeared with a 1935 photo of a Jewish businessman in Berlin with a yellow Star of David sewn on to his overcoat. The message was simple: Iran is the next fascist power and must be stopped even if it means war. The story was picked up by Murdoch newspapers, including the New York Post. In pursuit of an anti-Iran jihad, conservative leaders began issuing fatwas.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper denounced the proposed law. US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack described the measure as "despicable" and reminiscent of "Germany under Hitler". Even John Howard was reported in the Australian Jewish News as comparing Iran to Nazi Germany.

Then London’s Sunday Times reported Iran’s only Jewish MP, Maurice Motamed, as declaring that the story was a complete fabrication. Motamed’s denial was unequivocal, and was based on his eyewitness account of debate over what turned out to be a bill regulating aspects of Iran’s fashion industry.

So it’s ironic that while Jewish leaders in Iran are busy dispelling stereotypes, at least one Jewish leader in Australia is reinforcing them.

Rather than being distracted by Searle’s red herring, perhaps readers would be more interested in learning about why Khatami withdrew from Iran’s upcoming presidential race. Iranians go to the polls in June, and Khatami is said to have withdrawn his candidacy so that the liberal opposition vote isn’t split.

Khatami is a staunch critic of the incumbent Mahmud Ahmedinejad (who is indeed a holocaust denier). One former Iranian minister, Mustafa Tajzad, told the Guardian that "[t]he differences between Khatami and Ahmadinejad are bigger than between Obama and McCain. The results of the Iranian election will matter for the whole world."

Iran doesn’t have a perfect democracy. Corruption and nepotism are rife. The human rights of ethnic and religious minorities are extremely compromised. But its current system is certainly more democratic than the absolute monarchy of the Shah which existed before the self-styled Islamic Revolution in 1979.

If there is any hope for change in Iran, it lies with people like Khatami who are able to rally Iranian civil society. Iran’s population is complex and fascinating. Iranians are more fanatical about football than religion. Literacy rates exceed 90 per cent, and 70 per cent of the population is under 30. More women than men attend university.

Former president George W Bush’s famous "Axis of Evil" is now dead and buried. President Obama has spoken of convincing the West’s enemies to unclench their fists. But John Searle should remember that you can only convince someone when you’re actually talking. And that means sensible discussions with people like Khatami. There’s no point trying to tell others to relax their fists when your own is clenched and ready to strike.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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