This article appears in The Times today.
NEXT WEEK the former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami visits the United States. Though he will not meet government officials, the visit is significant and welcome. Khatami is reputedly a reformer. It may be possible, through him, to widen the gulf between Iranian pragmatists and theocratic populists.
But there is a risk. The current Iranian regime menaces Israel and has lied to the EU about its nuclear programme. It must not interpret Khatami’s visit as proof of the value of bellicosity. Khatami must get the message that the West will be receptive to concessions, but will face down belligerence. There lies the problem: Khatami’s host in the US is Jimmy Carter.
Carter’s poor reputation as president reflects a record not so much of incompetence as paralysis. He led his Administration mainly in the sense that its internal disagreements faithfully reflected his own philosophical chaos and administrative ineptitude. In domestic policy Carter zigzagged left and right, baffling equally the environmental activists he patronised and the churchgoers whose social values he claimed to share. His proposed system of federal energy controls failed comprehensively. In 1980 he acknowledged that inflation was near a “crisis stage”.
He proclaimed human rights while lauding the Shah of Iran’s repressive regime. When the Shah’s revolutionary successors held 52 American diplomats hostage for 14 months, Ayatollah Khomeini accurately sneered: “Neither does Carter have the guts for military action, nor would anyone listen to him.”
Carter cancelled the B1 bomber in the hope of gaining Soviet goodwill, later acknowledging bemusedly the Kremlin’s persisting “unfriendly rhetoric”. He earned the contempt of friendly European governments by announcing deployment of the neutron bomb and then cancelling it without consulting them.
Last weekend he impertinently attacked Tony Blair’s closeness to George Bush. Doubtless he prefers the model of transatlantic relations he pioneered with Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of Germany, who observed in exasperation that Carter was “just not big enough for the game”.
Less an elder statesman than a soft cushion who bears the impress of whoever sits on him, the 39th president is the last person Khatami should meet.