Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Iranian President Khatami Should Visit Montana

The Iranian news agency IRNA reported today that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has rejected the idea of talks between Iran and the United States, and has said that Iran should raise a "high wall" to keep out U.S. influences. This would seem to spell trouble for Iran’s more moderate president, Mohammad Khatami, who has suggested that the two countries should break down the barriers between them. Fortunately for President Khatami, however, Ayatollah Khamenei has two separate concerns, and one of them is quite interesting. The ayatollah is afraid, not only that American cultural and scientific contacts will undermine his Islamic revolution, but also that the U.S. government will “use satellites, computers and huge information networks ... to politically dominate others.” In this latter concern, the ayatollah is not alone. The Militia of Montana shares his fear. Its Website, for instance, repeatedly refers to a “government out of control” and tells of stories in which private citizens, believing in their freedom under the Constitution, have been harassed and even murdered by federal government agents. In short, when it comes to the subject of the U.S. government, the militia and the leader of the Islamic Republic might share some common interests. A meeting between President Khatami and representatives of the Montana Militia would have political difficulties, but it would also yield some benefits. First, from the Iranian side: if President Khatami met with militia representatives, he would be following through on his declared interest in making contact with real Americans. After all, militia leaders are among the nation’s stoutest defenders of the Constitution. At the same time, Khatami would not offend the supreme ayatollah by meeting with representatives of the U.S. government. On the contrary, he might actually please the ayatollah by encouraging some of the harshest critics of our government. The Militia might also gain from such a meeting. Under other circumstances, such a rendezvous -- like a conference with Libya’s Moammar Khadafy -- would produce much criticism. But the Iranian president is seeking peace, not war. The public would likely recognize that it is in our interests to improve ties with his country -- which, after all, is a major oil supplier and could be the principal threat, in coming years, to Israel and Saudi Arabia if it continues on the path of isolated Islamic fundamentalism. If the Militia are the people with whom Khatami chose to meet, that would be far better for America than no meeting at all. The Militia would gain in greatly increased public exposure, and could significantly alter its public image as a group of gun-toting extremists. It might also find some common ground with the ayatollah's dislike of overly technological society. And to assuage the concerns of its own members, the militia could end the meeting with a joint declaration outlining points of agreement and disagreement. The primary common interest of the Militia and the Iranians is their desire to reduce the federal government’s habit, as they see it, of wielding and abusing its power in areas where it has no business. That concern with governmental misbehavior is, of course, fundamental to the Constitution. Many Americans might feel nothing in common with either the Militia or the Iranians, and might initially share the government’s presumed dislike of any such meeting between those two groups; but many Americans would also agree that the IRS, the Pentagon, and other federal agencies are capable of abusing the public trust. We would all benefit if the Iranians and the Militia could identify specific areas in which government accountability can be improved. We would also benefit from an increase in understanding and contact between our nations, and from the opportunity to reduce the isolation that seems to persuade extreme militia members (and extreme Iranians) that terrorism is necessary to get the attention of the American public. If Castro can allow the Pope into Cuba, then surely the U.S. government can allow Iranians into Montana. It might be the first time that most of those visitors would discover a different side of America, far from the streets of New York and Washington. Perhaps their experiences in such places have given them a skewed understanding of America that the beautiful land and the decent people of Montana could counteract. It might be highly illuminating for them to discover that, in the future, their anti-American rhetoric might be more precisely targeted, not upon the American people as a whole, but upon those excesses of government behavior that we and our Constitution also abhor. [Originally posted February 5, 1998, but not presently showing up in a Google search. I would word it differently now, and some of my views have changed; then again, I can't fully reconstruct the world of 1998 in my mind right now, and I do feel that there should have been more creative and determined efforts to engage Islamic fundamentalists before September 11, 2001.]