On May 23, 1997, Iranian democracy worked. In a surprise to both the electorate and the international community, a little-known cleric named Mohammad Khatami resoundingly defeated the heavily-favored conservative candidate for the presidency of the Islamic Republic, Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri. For the moment, the votes of the people had trumped the will of the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, who had supported Nateq-Nouri. With 70 percent of the votes in an election with 80 percent turnout, Khatami won a powerful popular mandate for his platform of restoring civil rule, easing social restrictions, liberalizing the economy, and improving Iran’s relations with the outside world. To begin his pursuit of this last priority, President Khatami appeared on CNN and called upon the people of the United States to reject cultural conflict and join the people of Iran in a “dialogue of civilizations.” Soon, many in the Clinton Administration—including President Clinton himself—came to recognize that Khatami represented the most credible partner for peace with the United States since the Islamic Revolution had ruptured relations.

The years that followed left both sides disappointed. As mutual assurances and gestures of goodwill failed to translate into the grand action needed for a major breakthrough, it seemed that neither side had the will or the political strength needed to deliver a transformational deal. Clinton left office in January 2001, and although Khatami was re-elected later that year, Iran’s relations with US President George W. Bush veered from freeze to thaw and back again with no sense of steady progress in any direction. Constitutionally barred from seeking a third consecutive term, Mohammad Khatami’s years as President of Iran—and with them what seemed like a rare window for reconciliation with the United States—seemed doomed to dwindle to a quiet close.

Then, on May 4, 2003—days after President Bush delivered his “Mission Accomplished” speech to mark the conclusion of the invasion of Iraq, and with only two years left before the end of Khatami’s presidency—a mysterious fax arrived at the US Department of State from the Swiss Embassy in Tehran. In the years since the United States withdrew its diplomats from Iran in the wake of the hostage crisis, the Swiss Embassy there had managed routine transactions between Iran and the US government and its citizens. This fax, however, represented much more than ordinary business. On two pages of plain paper, the document outlined an incredible proposal: a grand bargain to resolve all outstanding tensions between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran. The fax laid out an ambitious agenda for negotiations on the most serious issues dividing the two nations: terrorism, the future of Iraq, economic sanctions, mutual demonization, and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Even Iran’s nuclear program was on the agenda. What’s more, according to the cover letter from the Swiss ambassador, the broad terms of the deal outlined in the fax had been devised by President Khatami and had the approval of Iran’s enigmatic Supreme Leader. To some in the Bush Administration—including the Middle East Director on the National Security Council (NSC), Flynt Leverett—this appeared to be the moment for the historic rapprochement that Khatami’s election had seemed to herald.

Then, the Bush Administration chose to ignore the fax. The proposal—along with any credible consideration of repairing the relationship between the United States and Iran—was dismissed. Khatami left office in 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took his place, and US relations with Iran have never recovered. Did the Bush Administration rebuff the United States’ last, best hope for peace with Iran? Could Mohammad Khatami have delivered on a grand bargain for peace with the United States? If he could not, could anyone?

A Silent Revolution?

The presidential election of 1997 did not seem like it would be a watershed moment for the Islamic Republic. In the months before the election, the conservative Nateq-Nouri—who had the clear support of the clerical establishment and the Supreme Leader—seemed like a sure, if uninspiring, winner. His policy prescriptions were, by and large, to continue the status quo. Despite a recent history of vocal opposition to the outgoing president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (whom he regarded as too moderate), as a candidate for president, Nateq-Nouri had backed away from his own most radical statements. Candidate Nateq-Nouri promised to respect and preserve Rafsanjani’s economic and foreign policy plans. Most suspected that if Nateq-Nouri changed much, he would do so in the realm of social policy, a realm in which some compared his zealous opposition to Western culture with that of the Taliban. The New York Times, the BBC, and CNN labelled Nateq-Nouri the frontrunner, and CNN mused that his most moderate opponent—Mohammad Khatami—might, perhaps, attract enough votes to force a runoff by denying Nateq-Nouri an absolute majority in the first round. That was as generous as the media would get in its assessments of Khatami’s prospects. This was sensible, too. With the Supreme Leader all but endorsing Nateq-Nouri, most struggled to envision a scenario in which another candidate could overcome him.

On most political questions in Iran—including the management of elections—the will of the Supreme Leader is enough to set policy. Under the constitution of the Islamic Republic, the popularly-elected president administers the government and executes the will of the Supreme Leader, but the unelected Leader holds ultimate authority over the nation’s affairs. Through the Guardian Council—a clerical and legal oversight body whose twelve members are all (directly or indirectly) appointed by the Supreme Leader—he exercises the power to rule on which candidates can even stand in a presidential election. In the 1997 election, the Guardian Council had winnowed a field of hundreds of candidates down to just four: Nateq-Nouri, Khatami, and two less prominent conservatives. In light of how dramatically the Supreme Leader can influence the electoral process, his endorsement—whether tacit or explicit—can have a dispositive effect on who will serve as Iran’s president. This time, however, it did not. Khatami humiliated Nateq-Nouri by taking 70 percent of the vote and winning in the first round. Why did this happen?

Something about Khatami—his moderate social views, his charm—attracted people to head to the polls in droves on his behalf. The Iranian people wanted change, and they were convinced that he was the man to deliver it. Other presidential candidates had been elected with a greater percentage of the votes cast than Khatami’s 70 percent—in 1981, future Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei may have won his own presidential bid with over 90 percent—but never coupled with such high turnout. Despite restrictions on his campaign that hampered his ability to travel and curtailed his media access, Khatami won the people to his cause. His victory was so astounding that, as Afshin Molavi reported in the early years of Khatami’s first term, some reformists spoke of 2nd Khordad (the Persian date of Khatami’s election) as a “silent revolution.” From then onward, 2nd Khordad became the banner for reformists and moderate movements across Iran; the date served as a symbolic reminder that the people’s will could change their world. What could this silent revolution achieve? What did it mean for the United States?

Ayatollah Gorbachev

In the days after 2nd Khordad, a Khatami supporter published a column in the International Herald Tribune urging the nations of the West to reappraise their views of Iran. In Amir Taheri’s view, Khatami’s election on a platform of social liberalization and rule of law signaled a possible end to the “revolutionary” era of ideological governance at home and reckless confrontation abroad. Khatami might, he suggested, prove to be an Iranian Gorbachev. Soon, TIME magazine had dubbed him “Ayatollah Gorbachev,” and the name stuck. The Supreme Leader felt compelled to publicly remark that Iran was not the Soviet Union and that Khatami would not be its Gorbachev. For his part, Khatami did what he could to live up to the name. If his campaign was any indication, he could earn it.

President Khatami acted immediately to implement policies on each of the main planks of his campaign platform: easing social restrictions, liberalizing economic policy, restoring rule of law, and repairing relations with the outside world. He directed the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance to license a freer press and to permit the formation of new political, civic, and cultural associations. He reigned in rogue elements of the state security apparatus and prepared to implement Iran’s first local elections. Despite external shocks to the economy, he began an important economic policy debate that would, in his second term, culminate in a major simplification of the tax code and a unification of the nation’s exchange rates. But of all his early policies, none stood out more sharply than his overtures to the United States.

On January 7, 1998, President Khatami appeared on CNN to deliver a message to the people of the United States. His theme was a remarkable break from the hateful rhetoric that had dominated the discourse between the United States and Iran since the Islamic Revolution: the people of the United States and the people of Iran share common values, he argued, and they should learn from one another. Citing “an intellectual affinity with the essence of American civilization,” Khatami professed his respect for the people of the United States and for the ideals they had worked to realize. He lauded the Declaration of Independence as “an important document on human dignity and rights.” He suggested that the ideological project of the Islamic Revolution—to establish an independent state that reconciled religion and liberty—had precedent in the project of the American Revolution. But he argued that the United States’ Cold War behavior—especially its meddling in Iran—was “incompatible” with US values and had “dashed the hopes of the people of the colonized world, who had placed their trust in the US.” In Khatami’s telling, the United States was a great civilization whose ideals had been undermined by the behavior of its government after World War II.

Nevertheless, in the wake of the horrors of the twentieth century, Khatami called upon the people of the United States to join him in building “a new century of humanity.” To do so, he asked them to engage with his people in a “dialogue of civilizations.” Beginning with an exchange of cultural and intellectual leaders, the two peoples could establish “a world in which misunderstandings can be overcome” and “a better future for both countries may be forged.” Although Khatami demurred on considering a restoration of political ties, his proposal for a “dialogue of civilizations” promised a tremendous step forward for the United States-Iran relationship. The audacity of this move cannot be emphasized enough: the duly elected leader of a nation which had institutionalized weekly chanting of “Death to America” had taken to international television to tell the people of the United States that his people shared their values and wanted to learn from them. Khatami had made his move. Now, the Clinton Administration had to formulate its response. If Khatami’s speech was the beginning of a broader warming, it seemed that the right response from the United States could elicit a new era of peace between the two nations.

A Silenced Revolution

Khatami’s outreach intrigued many in the Clinton Administration. Though they were wary of Iran—especially because of its sponsorship of terrorism, which as recently as the 1996 Khobar Towers attack had killed US citizens—they sensed that Khatami might be a truly different kind of Iranian president. Cautiously, they initiated small gestures of warmth toward Iran. The White House highlighted athletic exchanges between the two nations and eased economic sanctions on goods like Persian carpets and pistachios. President Clinton began issuing annual messages commemorating the Iranian new year and Muslim holidays like Eid al-Fitr; in his 1998 Eid message, he went as far as to say that he hoped “that the day will soon come when we can enjoy once again good relations with Iran.”

Still, President Clinton sought to do more with the opportunity presented by Khatami; he felt that only direct talks, rather than indirect goodwill exchanges, could encourage a decisive step forward for the US-Iran relationship. To that end, he initiated a series of bold unilateral outreach efforts to bring Iran to the table. The United States offered, through the US Interests Section of the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, to send some of its top diplomats to meet with Iran without preconditions at a venue of Iran’s selection. When Iran issued no reply, Clinton dispatched Vice-President Gore to request that the Saudis help bring the two together. This time the Iranians demurred, and emphasized that Khatami had called for dialogue between peoples, but had refrained from advancing to dialogue between governments. Finally, in June 1999, the Clinton Administration managed to convey written and oral messages to Khatami himself through an Omani intermediary. The message—which sought Iran’s cooperation in an investigation of the Khobar attack—received an Iranian reply that flatly denied the involvement of the Revolutionary Guards in the attack, but also indicated that Iran did not seek conflict with the United States. Though Iran sponsored no terrorist attacks against the United States through the duration of Khatami’s two terms, these exchanges frustrated the Clinton Administration. The Iranian relationship with the United States had barely changed. Why had Khatami been unable to deliver on the promise of his initial proclamations?

Khatami’s efforts abroad stalled in part because he was slowly losing control at home. Reactionary opposition to his reforms began almost as soon as he was elected, and the government’s conservative branches—led by those who had sought a Nateq-Nouri presidency—fought to delegitimize his administration. The security establishment, especially the ideological Revolutionary Guards, had begun refusing to enforce, and at times to deliberately undermine, Khatami’s decisions. Some in the religious judiciary began publicly denouncing him and his supporters and issued rulings halting his policies. The conservative legislature subjected pro-Khatami newspapers to new scrutiny and shuttered them without warning. The Intelligence Ministry had intellectuals and artists who supported greater freedom of expression assassinated. And the Supreme Leader did nothing to curb the conflict. As the government became increasingly polarized, the public—which remained strongly pro-Khatami—grew frustrated and impatient.

Beginning on July 8th, 1999, this domestic confrontation reached a violent climax. That day, pro-Khatami students at Tehran University took to the streets to protest the judiciary’s attempt to close Salaam, a major reformist newspaper run by Khatami’s political party. That evening, paramilitary forces raided university dormitories and assaulted students at random. In a night of terror, these forces battered down doors, dragged women by their hair, and threw students out of windows to their deaths. In the days that followed, rioting and unrest roiled the nation, security forces turning Iran’s cities into battlefields. The protestors alleged that the Supreme Leader was responsible for what had happened to the students and, more broadly, for the constraints that imperiled Khatami’s reforms.

As the battle transformed into the worst domestic unrest since the Islamic Revolution, Khatami stood at the precipice of a terrible choice. The young protestors—the hopeful youths whose votes had thrust Khatami into the presidency and who now put their lives on the line for his ideals—desperately needed his support. The Revolutionary Guards, however, signaled that if Khatami did not denounce and restrain his own supporters and suspend his reforms, they would permit or even perpetrate a coup to depose him outright. It was an insinuation they could not have made without at least the tacit approval of Khamenei. The Supreme Leader’s will, then, was clear: if Khatami took his mission one step further—if he dared to stand with the protestors—he would have to risk everything for his vision. On July 13th, Khatami backed away from the precipice. He made his choice. Proclaiming that the protestors had “evil aims,” he urged the people to leave the streets and accept the Supreme Leader’s will. Stunned and betrayed, they were quickly overwhelmed in the ensuing crackdown.

The next few years did little to resurrect the hope that marked Khatami’s first years in office. In an historic concession, Clinton’s Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, delivered a speech apologizing for US misdeeds towards Iran, including the US-led overthrow of Iran’s last democratic government in 1953; the Supreme Leader dismissed these overtures. Once Clinton left the US presidency, all remaining hope for reconciliation with the United States faded. The Iranian voters elected Khatami to a second term—and gave reformists their first majority in the parliament—but Khatami’s reform movement never really recovered from the tragedy of the student protests. In his first State of the Union address the new US president, George W. Bush, denounced Iran as a member of a global “Axis of Evil,” thereby demolishing the sympathy and goodwill toward the United States that many Iranians, including Khatami, had voiced shortly after the 9/11 attacks. Despite a moment of promising cooperation in late 2001—Khatami and his administration worked closely with the United States at the Bonn Conference to set up Afghanistan’s first post-Taliban government—the Bush Administration remained deeply suspicious of Iran. When the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, it did not seriously consider engaging with Iran again. All Khatami had to show for his “silent revolution” was a silenced revolution, quieted by his own feeble hand.

Then the US State Department received that fax. Stunned, US diplomats and analysts considered an electrifying prospect: after years of failure, had Khatami delivered a grand bargain?

What Came Over the Fax Machine

What you conclude about the now-notorious “grand bargain” fax depends heavily on whom you believe. There are as many competing narratives as there are readers of the fax. Who authored it? Whose views did it represent? Why didn’t the Bush Administration send any response?

By all accounts, the fax comprised two documents. One was a “roadmap” listing the diplomatic priorities of Iran and the United States and outlining how they could be achieved through a series of direct negotiations. This is the page that put all the seemingly nonnegotiable issues—Iran’s nuclear program, Iranian support for terrorism, and US sanctions, for example—on the table. The other was a cover letter from the Swiss Ambassador in Tehran, Tim Guldimann, purporting to explain what the “roadmap” meant. In Guldimann’s account—corroborated by that of Flynt Leverett, who was then on his way out as Middle East Director of the US National Security Council—the letter recounted how the “roadmap” had been developed and accepted at the highest levels of the Islamic Republic. Guldimann wrote that President Khatami, his foreign minister, and, incredibly, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, had gone over the document line-by-line and concluded that, despite minor reservations, it should be sent to the United States to begin the hard road toward a final resolution of their outstanding disputes. In Guldimann’s telling, he sent the fax to the State Department on behalf of the Iranian government fully convinced that Iran was ready to strike a deal. For his part, Leverett found this claim credible: with the United States at the apex of its military and political power in the Middle East—it had hundreds of thousands of troops on Iran’s west (Iraq) and east (Afghanistan)—and President Bush having publicly identified Iran as a major sponsor of terrorism, it seemed reasonable to Leverett that even the Supreme Leader had concluded that his regime’s security required a deal with the United States. Why, then, did nothing come of it?

The State Department’s official line is that the fax was “a creative exercise on the part of the Swiss ambassador,” who the Department alleges had overreached and produced a document unrepresentative of the Islamic Republic’s real views. Richard Armitage, then-Deputy Secretary of State, claimed that Guldimann was so eager to mend the United States’ relationship with Iran that he interpolated his own views into those of the Iranians with whom he spoke. The United States, he argued, discussed the document with top-level contacts in Iranian intelligence agencies, whose responses cast doubt on the fax’s legitimacy. While perhaps Khatami or those close to him could have authored something like the fax, the Supreme Leader surely had not endorsed it. As such, the United States declined to reply to the fax.

The Khatami Administration’s views on the fax are the most mysterious, and the most tantalizing. Was Khatami prepared to disavow Iranian sponsorship of terrorism? Perhaps most importantly in light of today’s tensions, was Khatami willing to resolve Western concerns with its nuclear program? In a rare interview several years after the incident, one of Khatami’s Vice-Presidents, Mohammad Ali Abtahi, confessed that he was aware of the fax. Pressed to explain whether the proposal had been approved by the government, he did his best to avoid providing a direct answer. “What is certain is that it didn’t get anywhere,” he said. “I’m reluctant to discuss it.”

The US decision not to respond to the fax brought the incident to a quiet end. Nevertheless, the story has a curious coda. That October, Iran agreed to voluntarily suspend its nuclear enrichment activities and cooperate fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for virtually nothing in return. But when Khatami, exhausted and powerless, left the presidency in 2005, his successor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, announced the resumption of nuclear enrichment and the end of this détente with the IAEA and the international community. Perhaps Khatami really had tried to do something revolutionary, after all.

Where is My Vote?

The controversy surrounding the story of the Swiss fax masks a deeper, more unsettling lesson of the Khatami presidency: whether he had endorsed the fax or not—and whether he wanted a grand bargain with the United States or not—Mohammad Khatami could not have delivered a peace deal. His presidency proved it. No matter how liberal his intentions were, he could not fully express them without jeopardizing his standing with Iran’s unelected power centers. No matter how many votes he won, he could not outmaneuver the conservative establishment who fundamentally opposed his agenda. The disappointment of the Khatami presidency is a reminder that under the current system, Iran’s democratically-elected officials always serve at the pleasure of its unelected Supreme Leader: in the Islamic Republic, only one vote really counts—and the man who casts it never voted for Khatami, anyway.

None of this is to discount the achievements of Khatami’s terms in office, nor the valuable affirmation of the democratic process that his two election victories did constitute. It is instead to say that in observing and engaging the Islamic Republic, the United States must never forget that Iran’s democracy is managed and constrained. As the massive protests after the presidential election of 2009 revealed, Iran’s elections remain deeply important to its people—and even if the president they choose cannot transform their world, being able to choose him is a right that makes their world theirs. When the people of Iran took to the streets that year chanting “Where is my vote?”, their plea was tragically sincere. For supporters of democracy, human rights, and adherence to the constitution—which have, in the years since Khatami brought them back to Iranian political discourse, become the cornerstones of what it means to be a “reformist”—these elections serve as unrivaled moments for civil, peaceful resistance against the forces which would drive them from the public square. Under this Supreme Leader, however, it’s clear that what these elections cannot do is fundamentally alter the way the Islamic Republic engages with the world. The United States should embrace Iran’s reformists as long as they remain the best hopes for peace—just as the people of Iran recognize them as the best hopes for civil rights—but this embrace must be tempered by a realistic understanding of the limitations the Supreme Leader imposes on the power of Iran’s democratic institutions. For now, there can be no grand bargain with the Islamic Republic. If Khatami, the most liberal president of Iran to survive two full terms, would not —or could not— do it, no president can or will.

This absence of an Iranian negotiating partner with the democratic legitimacy, political will, and executive power to engage in substantive negotiations with the United States is not going away any time soon: in fact, Iran’s presidential elections may soon be terminated entirely. Even though they have learned that they can contain, manipulate, or discard the results, the hardline supporters of the regime find these presidential elections dangerous: they bring the injustice of its nondemocratic core into stark relief. The strongest affirmation of the value of these elections may be that the Supreme Leader has, over the last year or so, initiated a process to dismantle them outright. In October 2011, Khamenei suggested replacing Iran’s presidential system with a parliamentary one, and by August 2012, his allies in parliament—who dominate the body—had begun drafting legislation to do just that, which would eliminate Iran’s most controversial elections and ensure that contests for executive office could be more easily controlled. 

While it is unclear whether or when the changes will be enacted—and all indications are that the presidential election set for June 2013 will proceed on schedule—what is unavoidable is that the Supreme Leader has exhausted his patience for a democratic executive with a legitimacy that can, if only for a moment, unsettle his own. Khatami’s election affirmed that when democracy works, its outcomes can be surprising. Khatami’s presidency revealed that the Supreme Leader is not a man who enjoys surprises.