WASHINGTON—Former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami, on a goodwill tour of American cities, said Thursday that three U.S. allies may be willing to negotiate with Tehran over suspending its uranium enrichment program without preconditions.
Khatami, speaking to reporters before delivering a speech at Washington's National Cathedral, suggested dialogue is the best way to avoid a U.S.-Iran confrontation and warned that American threats of force wouldn't succeed.
"And in the case . . . of the nuclear crisis issue, I believe dialogue and negotiation could both give Iran entitlements and rights and safeguard those rights, but at the same time could give guarantees to people who have concern about Iran's activities," he said. "And as far as I know, Russia, China and France are interested in pursuing the dialogue and without preconditions. And this is a right position, the correct position."
Just before heading to Washington, Khatami also took a veiled swipe at President Bush in a speech at the University of Virginia. He didn't name names, but he left little doubt that one of his barbs was aimed at Bush.
"The rationale whereby the world is divided into `us and them,' the justification of `us' is contingent upon the negation of the other and results in statements such as `whomever is not with us is against us,'" Khatami said. "This `us' is a small circle encompassing a few that have the right to arrive at any verdict they please regarding the ones they consider `the other.' They can force this `other' to submit to their whims or even eliminate `the other' altogether."
Khatami said such logic flew in the face of the three faiths that descended from Abraham: Judaism, Islam and Christianity. A better way, he argued, was to achieve peace and tolerance through dialogue between governments and through nongovernmental organizations.
Khatami is visiting five U.S. cities to discuss the role of religion in the peace process. The United Nations and some universities and other private organizations invited him to this country.
No Bush administration officials planned to meet with him, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
Khatami is the highest-ranking Iranian to visit Washington since Islamist revolutionaries in Iran seized the U.S. Embassy in 1979 and held Americans hostage for 444 days. Diplomatic relations have been broken since 1980.
The U.S. government condemns Iran for supporting terrorists, refusing to cooperate fully with inspectors from the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency and repressing religious freedoms.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a federal agency, sent the National Cathedral a letter criticizing the visit. It said that in Iran, where Shiite Islam is the state religion, people were tortured and harassed and religious minorities were persecuted while Khatami was president from 1997 to 2005.
The State Department said in a 2005 report that actions by Iran's government created "a threatening atmosphere for some religious minorities, especially Baha'is, Jews and evangelical Christians."
Khatami was elected as a reformer, but hard-liners blocked his proposals. His two-week visit to the United States was intended to show a more moderate image of Iran compared with the hard-line style of the country's current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
"He's trying to put a more human face on for Iran, you know, `We're not crazy. You used to think of me as a reasonable guy,' " said Marvin Weinbaum, an analyst for the Middle East Institute and a former State Department official. "He's going to play the softer line here. They (Iranian government) know he has some standing in the United States. He's a useful emissary."
Khatami's visit to Washington came on the same day that U.S. and European leaders discussed possible sanctions against Iran for its refusal to stop enriching uranium.
Different levels of enrichment produce uranium for nuclear energy or nuclear weapons. Iran says its programs are only for energy. The IAEA says Iran hasn't cooperated enough so that inspectors can certify that its nuclear program is strictly peaceful.
Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney ordered state agencies not to provide assistance when Khatami speaks at Harvard University on Sunday. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino said his city's police department would escort Khatami at the request of the State Department.
Sen. George Allen, R-Va., a possible Republican presidential candidate in 2008, sent Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice a letter asking that Khatami's visa be revoked because he'd headed a regime that's considered a sponsor of terrorism and because of Iran's human rights record.
"I think a lot of what he's saying is dissimilation, which Iran is very good at," said James Phillips, a Middle East expert for the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based conservative research center. "There will be a lot of newspaper articles and coverage, but Khatami's power is long gone and the people who run Iran now don't hold him in high regard."
Others said back channels and third parties were a way to start talking with Iran.
"We would be wise to listen to what Mr. Khatami has to say, though with some of the rhetoric coming out of the White House, I'm not going to hold my breath," said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, a political science professor at New York's Syracuse University. "In a subtle way, Iran is trying to send a signal that, at least, let's engage in public diplomacy."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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