YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Kamal Kharrazi

Directing Iran's Foreign Policy for a New and More Open Government

September 28, 1997|Robin Wright | Robin Wright covers global affairs for The Times. She is the author of "Sacred Rage: The Wrath of Militant Islam."

NEW YORK — In one way or another, Kamal Kharrazi has been the voice of Iran for most of the past two decades. Shortly after the 1979 revolution, he was named president of the Islamic Republic News Agency, Iran's sole news service. Shortly after Iraq's invasion in 1980, he became head of Iran's War Information Headquarters, the primary purveyor of developments in one of the century's grisliest conflicts. Kharrazi's impact in both jobs, held jointly for almost a decade, was so profound that he was rewarded with the job of Iran's voice in the outside world. He became ambassador to the United Nations in 1989.

Last month, the U.S.-educated envoy was rewarded once again. Kharrazi was named foreign minister, the voice of Iranian diplomacy, by Iran's new president.

In New York last week for the opening of the U.N. General Assembly and to pack up for the move back home, Kharrazi gave his maiden address as foreign minister--a speech watched closely and "somewhat favorably" by Washington, according to Clinton administration officials. "Progress of a pluralistic world with a great and ever-increasing variety of thoughts, ideas, beliefs, traditions and values depends on the promotion of tolerance and moderation," he told the U.N. The foreign policy of President Mohammed Khatami's new government "is founded on peace, self-restraint, confidence-building and reduction and elimination of tension."

So soft-spoken that he is sometimes hard to hear, Kharrazi, 53, has moved into a variety of professions far afield from his doctoral studies in education at the University of Houston--and membership, in 1976, in the American Assn. of University Professors. Yet, he still delves into academe in his spare time, writing books in Persian on everything from the impact of chemical weapons to the strategies of learning, as well as articles in English for Harvard's Middle East Review.

Pressed about his hobbies, aides say the only activity they've ever seen him engage in is reading. "You could travel with him for 24 hours and not notice he was with you, he's so quiet," said one colleague. His neat beard tipped white and bespectacled, Kharrazi is also demure in dress. Like his wife, who wears traditional Islamic covering, he adheres to the revolution's male dress code--a short stand-up collar and no tie, the latter considered a symbol of the West and its imposed culture.

As the voice of the new Khatami government, Kharrazi will be a key man to watch, U.S. officials say, to see if Tehran's new policy of openness at home translates into foreign policy--and eventually leads to bridging the gap between the world Kharrazi once lived in and his homeland.


Question: In May, Iran held a presidential election. Mohammed Khatami upset the front-runner on the basis of fresh ideas--from the formation of multiple political parties to a free press. What does his election mean for Iran?

Answer: It's a very important point in Iranian political life. The atmosphere in Iran has changed. Over the next years, parties will be shaped and there will be more cultural activities, more newspapers and magazines in the market. As has been clearly said by our minister of culture, the approach he has is quite different from the last minister of culture. He thinks that through engagement, through openness and transparency, the Islamic culture can develop and play its role--not only in Iran, but also in the region and the world. Therefore, he emphasizes dialogues between civilizations and cultures. He encourages openness.

Q: Do you anticipate, as a result of this openness, that there will be greater public debate about ideas, political as well as cultural?

A: Why not? I myself promoted this idea. I had a meeting with the chief editors of Iranian newspapers and encouraged them to criticize the foreign ministry. If you criticize, I learn, and I don't mind how much you criticize. Feel free and do your best. This is the policy of the government. Hopefully, it will be very helpful for the more successful operation of the government.

Q: Two critical constituencies during this election were women and youth. Do you anticipate the government taking action to encourage the participation of women, perhaps to relax some of the restrictions on women and to bring more young people into government?

A: Yes, that is one of the policies of the new government: to give more roles for women and youth. One of the main principles of President Khatami [is] that women have the right to be more active in Iranian life. That's why he appointed a woman as his vice president and [why] he supports the activities of Iranian women to acquire their rights in all aspects of society.

Los Angeles Times Articles