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Khatami defends democracy as core ``value'

By Jonathan Lyons

TEHRAN, Aug 22 (Reuters) - Iranian President Mohammad Khatami reaffirmed his commitment to democracy on Tuesday and dismissed charges by conservatives that reformers were soft on religious and revolutionary values.

Khatami, a mid-ranking Shi'ite Moslem cleric, used the second part of a taped television interview to assert the defence of democratic rights as an important ``value'' in its own right.

In the first instalment, broadcast on Monday, the moderate president expressed frustration at the weakness of his office but vowed not to resign or abandon his reformist platform in the face of mounting set-backs.

``Values are important, but which values? I believe in political identity, freedom to take part in the political process and to have the right to decide one's destiny. These are values, not superficial impressions of religion and trying to impose them on others as values,'' Khatami said.

``Defending the rights of the people is the most important value. It is not possible to have a society whose people do not have the right to rule over themselves,'' he added.

Since his landslide victory in 1997, Khatami has seen his vision of pluralist democracy within Iran's Islamic system come under head-on attack from conservative clerics who claim a monopoly on social, political and religious interpretation.


Hardliners regularly invoke threats to Iran's Islamic values to justify harsh repression of the reform drive, including the recent wholesale banning of newspapers, the jailing of prominent dissidents and even the serial murders of secularists.

But the president, versed both in Islamic texts and western philosophy, said Iran must now seek a new approach, one that could set the pace for the broader Islamic world.

``There are three central issues that come together -- Iran, Islam and the republic. These are three elements in our system, we cannot have one without the others. We must have all three together.

``If Iran's brand of democracy succeeds, it will be an example for other Islamic countries, including those under the domination of global powers,'' Khatami said.

He also reminded his opponents that his government had presented a new face of Iran to the West, disarming critics and extending Iranian influence abroad -- an implicit warning that the recent crackdown on the free press could undermine those gains.

``Special attention is now paid to Iran on the global scene. We have to be careful that Iran's democratic image is not harmed. If that happens, then our revolution will be harmed.

``Now there is almost no serious threat to our existence. There once were military threats but now these threats have been transformed into opportunities.''


Tuesday's broadcast followed harsh criticism in the press of the president's decision to give a taped interview with select journalists rather than a news conference open to all media.

``With regard to his excellency the president...he is the only president to have stayed three years in office without holding news conferences with Iranian journalists or even giving exclusive interviews to the domestic press,'' said the hardline daily Jomhuri-ye Eslami.

Even the centrist Iran News, which is close to the foreign ministry, took the president to task. ``Has Mr Khatami forsaken the press?'' it asked in its editorial.

``During the past three years, we have witnessed the incarceration of many press people and the closures of newspapers. These are sacrifices made in support of Mr Khatami's administration and his policies,'' it said.

For his part, the president -- an intellectual and former head of the national library -- struck a subdued note under the strain of his office, clearly longing to return to a life of study and contemplation.

``It is an honour for me to serve the people but I also like to have a climate where I can read and learn.''


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