No Harvard guest speaker in recent memory has been the cause of as much controversy as former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami. Khatami, who was president of the Islamic Republic of Iran from 1997 until his resignation just over a year ago, spoke to a packed audience at the Kennedy School of Government (KSG) yesterday.
Though there was no shortage of objections to Khatami’s presence from both sides of the political spectrum, the invitation extended to him was at once appropriate and timely. The policies of Khatami’s administration were reprehensible, and Iran remains home to some of the most egregious human rights violations in the world. His invitation to speak did not excuse this nor did it endorse his twisted worldview. Instead, his invitation merely acknowledged that he has, for better or worse, profoundly shaped current events.
Political differences should not determine who speaks to a university. Those decisions ought to be made with regard to what contribution a speaker stands to make to the intellectual community. With Iran dominating front pages around the world because of its deadly dance with the United Nations and nuclear arms, Khatami surely stood ready to make such a contribution to Harvard.
Khatami’s speech was itself an unexceptional mix of demagoguery and diplomacy, but what made yesterday’s event remarkable was the audience response to his presence. Some applauded when he was asked a tough question about Iran’s alleged financial support of the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah. Others were equally enthusiastic as Khatami towed the Iranian party line in soft-spoken Persian. Outside the KSG, a small crowd of protesters greeted queued-up ticket holders with placards. Hawkish demonstrators waved signs that urged the US government to “Bomb Iran Before They Nuke Us,” while the doves standing beside them were just as passionate in their sentiments: “Stand With Iranian Student, Stand Against War,” their banners read.
In other words, Khatami’s visit to Harvard accomplished exactly what speaker events at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum are meant to—his presence provoked widespread interest in an important issue of foreign policy and sparked a discussion, both inside the venue and across the country, about Iran, its policies, and America’s relationship with it.
The United States is a country exceedingly proud of its liberties, and freedom of expression ranks highly among the rights that Americans hold most dear. A ramification of our liberties, however, is the sometimes difficult reality that we are obligated to give a fair hearing to those with whom we strongly disagree. Khatami articulated the views of one of our country’s sworn enemies—a member of the “axis of evil”—and he was allowed to do so because the U.S., unlike Iran, is a country whose commitment to political freedoms is strong enough to permit opposition to its government’s policies.
As an academic institution, Harvard ought to keep its place at the forefront of intellectual discourse by bringing to Cambridge speakers who revile us, even as they challenge us. The University lived up to this part of this mission when, in 1959, it invited Fidel Castro, then newly installed as Cuba’s premier, to speak to a crowd of 6,000 at the Dillon Field House. It did so again by bringing Mohammed Khatami here yesterday.