Published January 13, 2015
Iran's president is a quiet intellectual so loved by the public that many women carry his photograph in their purses and some men keep one tucked in their wallets.
Exceedingly polite and articulate, President Mohammad Khatami is hero of a nation largely ruled by conservative Islamic overseers who have fallen out of step with the mood of a predominantly young nation. Khatami's ideas on women, youth and the role of religion are radical for an Iranian cleric.
His drive for a less restrictive, isolated Iran got a strong boost in Friday's election, with vote counting the next day showing him headed to a landslide.
What appeals to many about the 58-year-old Khatami is how different he is — in looks and ideas — from most other clerics, who often appear more remote and forbidding.
What sets him apart are his pleasant smile and fastidious grooming — his trimmed graying beard, the well-pressed clerical robe carefully matched with flowing cloak, his well-shined shoes. The president is so obsessed with tidiness that he is known to nag TV crews not to wrinkle his robe when they put a microphone on him.
It helps Khatami's popularity, too, that he says what many Iranians have long wanted to hear, promising freedom and civil rights.
"If we fail to respond to the questions of the modern time and try to impose our own interpretations (of Islam) on the people, then we have inflicted a fundamental blow to religion," he said in a pre-election televised program.
As culture minister, Khatami was credited with reviving Iranian music and cinema following the 1979 Islamic revolution and canceling a ban on live concerts. Religious hard-liners removed him from office in 1992 for his liberal views.
During a rare news conference Tuesday, when a journalist referred to Khatami's honesty and sincerity, the president took off his glasses and wiped his eyes with a handkerchief. "These are not tears," he quipped as journalists chuckled, recalling how he wept after registering his name for the election in May.
The president refuses to have his portrait painted on public buildings and dislikes them hanging in government offices. But he is so popular that many people carry his photo with them.
Khatami, a middle-ranking cleric, works long hours and sometimes sleeps at the office, his wife, Zohreh Sadeqi, said in an interview published Wednesday in the monthly Zanan. The couple usually dines at midnight, or later, she said.
Even in a male-dominated society, Khatami is not domineering at home, Sadeqi said, adding: "Dialogue dominates our family atmosphere."
In a society that forces women to cover themselves from head to toe, Sadeqi described Khatami as open-minded, valuing her opinion on all aspects of their life together.
Sadeqi said the president makes $325 a month, which he gives her to spend as she pleases. The couple has two daughters, both university students, and a son who is in high school.
Khatami spends his leisure time improving his skills in Arabic, English and German. He once headed the Islamic Center in Hamburg, Germany.
Khatami has published two books. Fear of the Wave examines Shiite reformers who sought to reinterpret Islamic law according to their own times. From the World of the City to the City of the World is a long rumination on Western political thought.
In a 1997 interview with Cable News Network, Khatami broke the ice in nearly two decades of cold ties with the United States and called for greater cultural, academic and athletic exchanges.
Khatami was born in Ardakan in central Yazd province into a conservative family. He earned degrees in theology and philosophy.