Iran's Former Leader Jabs at Bush on U.S. Tour
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Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami is the U.S. for a two week tour. Today he's in New York attending a conference of the United Nations sponsored Alliance of Civilizations. Khatami is a founding member of the group, which focuses on the improving understanding between Islamic and Western states. That's been one of the themes of Khatami's speeches. But there's also been criticism of U.S. foreign policy.
NPR's Jackie Northam reports.
JACKIE NORTHAM: When he was first elected president in 1997, Khatami built himself a reputation as a reformer. Last year after failing to deliver on the promised reforms, he left office. The question of whether he was relevant hanging over his head. John Alterman with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the C.S.I.S., says this high profile visit to the U.S. may help shore up Khatami's reputation.
Mr. JOHN ALTERMAN (Center for Strategic and International Studies): By reaching out and doing something very visible on an issue that a lot of Iranians really care about, somehow normalizing relations with the United States, Khatami has made himself relevant not only in international context but in an Iranian context as well.
NORTHAM: Khatami is the most senior Iranian official to visit the U.S. since 1979 when Islamic fundamentalists seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held Americans hostage for well over a year. There was outrage in some quarters that Khatami had even been granted an unrestricted visa. Shawn McCormick, State Department spokesman, said Khatami would not meet with any U.S. officials.
Mr. SHAWN MCCORMICK (Department of State): Nobody should take the fact that there was a decision to issue this visa that we have any illusions about the nature of the Iranian regime.
NORTHAM: Khatami's visit comes at a time when the U.S. is accusing Iran of trying to make nuclear weapons and when his successor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has called the holocaust a myth and has said Israel should be “wiped off the map.”
Khatami has a much gentler approach advocating dialogue over confrontation. Speaking before tens of thousands in Muslims in Chicago this weekend, Khatami urged active participation to help promote peace and security. But Khatami, speaking through an interpreter, also lashed out at the Bush administration for what he called it's arrogant war mongering and violence triggering policies.
Mr. MOHAMMAD KHATAMI (Former President of Iran):(Through Translator) As America claims to be fighting terrorism, it influences policy that cause the intensification of terrorism and institutionalized violence.
NORTHAM: Khatami's visit to the U.S. includes speeches at Harvard, at the University of Virginia and the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Abdulaziz Sachedina, a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Virginia and the author of several books on Iran and Shiizism, helped organized Khatami's visit. Sachedina says Khatami is hoping to reach out to a broad audience with a carefully scripted speech.
Mr. ABDULAZIZ SACHEDINA (University of Virginia): He's in a very delicate position. He's a well known figure from Iran and he can't sound comprising. At the same time he wants to open a conversation and he knows what the U.S. government can do in the world today.
NORTHAM: Even if Khatami isn't in power any more, he still is part of an influential network in Iran, says Alterman of the C.S.I.S., and that his visit could help relationships between Iran and the U.S.
Mr. ALTERMAN: It does seem to me that there are opportunities here that could possibly get you in a better place. Not because you can solve the problem of tensions between the U.S. and Iran, but because you can be in a better position to manage them.
NORTHAM: The State Department's McCormick indicated today that Khatami's visit could be useful, saying he hoped the former president would carry home a message - that the American people don't wish to be isolated from the Iranians.
Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.
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