Islamic Studies Muhammad Khatami
Nader Entessar
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0127


Muhammad Khatami was born on 14 October 1943 in the city of Ardakan in the Yazd Province in central Iran. He is a Shi’a cleric with a rank of Hojjatol Eslam (authority or proof of Islam), an honorific title applied to middle-ranking theologians in the Twelver Shi’ism. Known for his moderate and reformist views on religion and politics, Khatami served two terms as the president of the Islamic Republic from 1997 to 2005. Prior to his presidency, Khatami served the Islamic Republic in a number of capacities, including as a member of Parliament, or Majlis (1980–1982), two terms as the minister of culture and Islamic guidance (1982–1986 and 1989–1992), and as the head of the National Library of Iran (1992–1997). He is a graduate of Isfahan University with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and earned his master’s degree in educational sciences from Tehran University. In addition, Khatami received seven years of theological training in Iran’s theological seminaries in the holy city of Qum to become a mujtahid, thus allowing him to interpret religious doctrines and issue religious rulings. In addition to his native Persian language, Khatami speaks Arabic, English, and German. He is also a member of the Central Council of the Association of Combatant Clerics, the main reformist clerical association in Iran.

General Overviews

Notwithstanding Khatami’s positions in the Islamic Republic, he was a candidate little known by the general voting population of Iran and was viewed as a safe candidate by the country’s establishment to run against the odds-on-favorite, Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri, the speaker of Parliament. Khatami ran as a candidate of reform and promised individual freedom and rule of law. Khatami’s promise of inclusion (Iran for all Iranians) created an avalanche of support for his candidacy (Tazmini 2009), leading to an unprecedented voter turnout of 80 percent. Khatami was elected on the 2nd of Khordad 1376 in the Iranian calendar (23 May 1997), receiving 70 percent of the votes cast. The coalition that brought Khatami to power was composed of young voters, women, business leaders, and those who had grown tired of revolutionary excesses and wanted normalcy in their lives (Gheissari and Nasr 2006). This coalition became known as the “2nd of Khordad movement,” or the “reformist movement.” However, reform had not started with Khatami. In fact, the victory of the “reformist movement” marked the culmination of a century of popular struggle for democratic change in Iran (Ansari 2003, Azimi, 2008, Dabashi 2007, Keddie 2003). Khatami was elected president of Iran for a second term on 8 June 2001 with over 65 percent of the votes cast, and he finished his presidency on 3 August 2005.

Primary Works

As a political philosopher, Khatami has sought to infuse Western and Islamic political thought in his writings, particularly in dealing with the concepts of power, justice, legitimacy, and rights. Khatami has published many books that reflect his philosophical outlook on these topics. Khatami’s personal website provides updates on the former Iranian president’s speeches and writings. Khatami 1997 and Khatami 1998 are rather hopeful about the prospects of liberty and democratic development in Iran and see Islam, especially “true and pluralistic Islam” (Khatami 1993), as a vehicle for achieving these goals. Moreover, Khatami 2000c and Khatami 2001a view the existence of competitive political parties and civil society as the foundation of a robust democratic system that can guarantee Iran’s long-term security and sociopolitical and economic development. Khatami 2000d praises the country’s youth and women for being in the forefront of defending freedom and guarding the country against the forces of reaction. However, Khatami 2000a and Khatami 2000b warn about authoritarian tendencies and antidemocratic forces that would seek to monopolize power and prevent the establishment of an open society in Iran. In foreign policy, Khatami 2001b sees dialogue and understanding among the world’s major civilizations as the best hope for maintaining peace and security in the world.

Dialogue among Civilizations

The philosophical and theoretical foundations of the term dialogue among civilizations predated Khatami’s presidency. Among contemporary Iranian thinkers, philosophers such as Dariush Shayegan and Javad Tabatabi had written about this concept before Khatami’s accession to power. However, Khatami was among the first political leaders who promoted this concept, making it into a centerpiece of his presidency and advancing it tirelessly in various international settings. Although he did not formally articulate it as such, Khatami sought to provide a sustained response to the prediction of Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington of a “clash of civilizations” (Huntington 1998). The thrust of Khatami’s argument was that global diversity should not be viewed as a threat, but rather as an opportunity to promote cooperation and the establishment of a pacific world order, and that morality and culture must prevail over power politics (Khatami 2000). Khatami’s strong belief in the emancipatory power of cultural dialogue remained consistent throughout his public career (Afrasiabi 2006–2007). Khatami also established the Foundation for Dialogue among Civilisations and the Baran Foundation to promote dialogue among civilizations by sponsoring conferences, symposia, and workshops. It was due to Khatami’s persistent effort that the United Nations declared 2001 as the UN Year of Dialogue among Civilizations (see Khatami 2000). However, as noted in Mirbagheri 2007, the appeal of the dialogue of civilizations could not be sustained in the absence of substantive and meaningful dialogue between Islamic and Western cultures.

Critical Assessment of Khatami’s Presidency

Khatami’s presidency marked one of the most significant periods in the life of the Islamic Republic. Although Khatami’s goal was not to transform the Islamic Republic, his presidency was marked by a totally unfamiliar discourse in revolutionary Iran among those at the apex of power in the Islamic Republic. While Khatami failed to change the record of human rights abuses in the country (Afshari 2001), he nevertheless introduced a new vocabulary into the country’s political discourse and set in motion forces that have continued to challenge the authoritarian tendencies of the Islamic Republic. Emphasizing the rule of law (Arjomand 2000) and creating political space in which civil society and individual creativity could blossom were Khatami’s main, albeit fleeting, contributions to Iran’s post-revolutionary politics. That said, Khatami’s experience with reform clearly exposed the limits of change in the Islamic Republic. As noted in Amuzegar 2004, Arjomand 2009b, and Chaichian 2003, structural and constitutional impediments in Iran’s theocratic system and Khatami’s inability, or unwillingness, to confront his adversaries head-on and push for the implementation of his promised reforms ultimately led to disillusionment among the electorate and the demise of the reform movement as envisioned by Khatami. Of course, persistent factionalism and power struggles in the Islamic Republic, as described in Brumberg 2001 and Arjomand 2009a, have always served as an impediment to implementing structural reform in post-revolutionary Iran. In his defense, President Khatami published a forty-seven-page letter in which he acknowledged the frustrations of his old supporters with the pace of reform, but he also defended his record and reformist agenda. In bluntly blaming the conservative Guardian Council for blocking many of his legislative proposals, Khatami also stated that change and reform are inevitable in Iran and would come about gradually over the course of his presidency and beyond. Indeed, Khatami’s significance goes beyond what he did in office. In fact, he served as the harbinger of an intellectual movement that has continued to evolve in Iran today. The Green Movement would not have come about without the sociopolitical foundation laid by Khatami’s reform movement. The robust Muslim and secular reformers found in Iran today were invariably influenced by the relative openness of the political space that was established during Khatami’s presidency (Majd 2008 and Majd 2010).

back to top