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In U.S. Visit, Iran's Khatami Urges Dialogue

September 08, 2006|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, undertaking an American tour rare for ex-officials of the government in Tehran, called Thursday for a "dialogue of civilizations" among Jews, Christians and Muslims, even as he scolded the Bush administration for its treatment of detainees and other alleged human rights abuses.

"I do not deny that there are a lot of problems in Iran. But I would certainly say those are not [worse] than the problems and violations in places like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo," Khatami said at a news conference before a speech at Washington National Cathedral, referring to the former U.S. military prison at Abu Ghraib near Baghdad and the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. "Let's condemn the violation of human rights wherever it takes place."

Khatami is believed to wield little influence with the hard-line mullahs running Iran. Nonetheless, his two-week U.S. visit, which is also to include a speech Sunday at Harvard University, has provoked controversy.

He is the most prominent Iranian to visit the United States since the 1979-81 hostage crisis, apart from diplomatic visits to New York for official United Nations business. Khatami has spoken at mosques in Chicago and held private meetings at Georgetown University and at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where he toured Thomas Jefferson's home of Monticello.

Despite his reputation as a moderate and a reformer, Khatami's visit has stoked anger over Iran's treatment of political dissidents and its persecution of religious minorities. Khatami was Iran's president from 1997 until 2005, when he was succeeded by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Many of the 52 U.S. diplomats held hostage in Iran for 444 days during the Carter administration are furious with the U.S. government for issuing a visa to a man whose rhetoric is soft but whose policies they believe mirror those followed in Tehran ever since student radicals took over the U.S. Embassy.

"It is horrendous," said Barry Rosen, who was press attache at the embassy when it was seized Nov. 4, 1979. "It is as if the U.S. government is forgetting what happened."

Critics were particularly galled that Khatami had been invited to speak at the National Cathedral, where presidents have been memorialized and where the nation mourned the loss of about 3,000 citizens after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"There was open religious persecution during his tenure -- Jews were arrested, the Bahai were persecuted, a Canadian journalist was killed," said Nina Shea, a conservative activist and vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent government agency. "He should be confronting what occurred ... and apologizing for it."

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2008, assailed Harvard's Kennedy School of Government for inviting Khatami to speak and has banned state law enforcement agencies from providing security. Instead, the State Department is providing security.

"State taxpayers should not be providing special treatment to an individual who supports violent jihad and the destruction of Israel," said Romney, calling Harvard's decision to invite Khatami "a disgrace."

In response, the Kennedy School of Government issued a statement saying it was "surprised and disappointed" by Romney's stance.

Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on AmericanIslamic Relations, or CAIR, agreed that there is a need for dialogue. "Most Americans don't want a repeat of the Iraq fiasco," said Hooper, whose organization is playing host at a dinner for Khatami tonight in Washington. "The way to prevent that is to listen to each other."

In the invitation to the private dinner, which also includes a photo opportunity for the estimated 100 guests, CAIR described Khatami as "Iran's first reformist president [who] focused his tenure on the rule of law, democracy and the inclusion of all Iranians in the political decision-making process."

But critics decried Khatami's record. "There is this mythology that somehow he is a better man than the current regime," said Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "His rhetoric may be softer, but blow for blow on policy, there isn't much difference."

Shibley Telhami, a Middle East expert at the University of Maryland, said the visit -- and the controversy -- were welcome developments.

"It opens up a window that didn't exist before," he said of the trip. "Not only does it indicate a probing on the American side but on the Iranian side. Neither the supreme leader nor the president vetoed the trip. He would not be here if they didn't want him to be."

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack defended the decision to grant a visa to Khatami even as the Bush administration pursues international sanctions against Iran for its nuclear enrichment program.

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