To many westerners, iranian politics is still epitomized by the steely glare of the late Ayatollah Khomenei. But Iran's public face is changing with the continued ascendancy of reformist President Mohamad Khatami.
Mr. Khatami took his friendlier politics abroad last week, becoming the first Iranian leader to visit the West since the 1979 Islamic revolution. Since his return, he has taken predictable sniping from Iranian conservatives, who distrust any outreach to the worldly West. But they're fighting a rear-guard action. Khatami's strategy of openness serves both Iran's and the West's long-term interests.
High on the agenda during his trip to Italy were economic ties. A major Italian energy company is a partner in a $1 billion deal to develop a new oil field in Iran. Oil revenues are skidding, however, with world prices. Iran needs all the development options, and foreign investment, it can get.
Khatami also made a point of visiting Pope John Paul II. Their meeting appeared to be a genuine effort to bridge a religious divide. "The hope," said the Iranian president as he ended his audience with the Pope, "is for the final victory of monotheism, morality, peace, and reconciliation."
The meeting with one of Christianity's leading figures was a very politic move as well. Khatami has to convince the rest of the world that Iran is no longer the insular theocracy it has seemed for most of the past 20 years. Islam remains a guiding theme, but the Islam of Khatami and those who voted for him doesn't shrink from contact with the wider world of commerce, or the intellect.
It's noteworthy, for instance, that the Iranian government last weekend publicly honored the country's writers, some of whom had been officially reviled as secularists in the past.
Still, the president and fellow reformers have a long way to go at home before Iran is prepared to open its doors wide to Western literature, or Western investors. True, the reformist movement clearly has momentum, as evidenced by victories in Iran's first-ever municipal elections three weeks ago. But the country's conservative clerics are still well-entrenched. Hard-liners far from open to foreign contacts and investment dominate the national legislature, or Majlis. They also control the maze of bureaus that govern the distribution of goods and services within Iran.
Khatami's ability to ease his nation back into the wider international community is boosted by the good will he brings back from his Italy trip. He is reported to have in mind follow-up visits to France and Germany. Europe, clearly, is first in line for partnership with a newly opening Iran.
An anti-American past, Tehran's antagonism toward Israel, and its yen for nuclear weapons, work against the United States getting into this line. But public jabs at oil deals aside, Washington should welcome Europe's embrace of Khatami. What he's doing in Iran will inevitably merge with US interests, enhancing Middle East peace and lessening Iran's inclination to support terrorists.