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Khatami starts German visit amid tight security

By Douglas Busvine

BERLIN, July 10 (Reuters) - Iranian President Mohammad Khatami arrived on Monday for a landmark visit to Germany, where his hosts took extraordinary steps to contain protests by emigre opponents of the Islamic government.

Khatami was welcomed with full military honours at Berlin's Tegel airport by President Johannes Rau, becoming the first Iranian leader to visit since a turbulent trip by the late Shah in 1967, when a German student was shot dead by police.

The pair then boarded a helicopter to fly to Rau's residence in one of many security measures designed to shield Khatami from protests by Iran's exiled opposition in the German capital.

Before leaving Tehran, he told reporters:

``Relations between Iran and Germany have seen many ups and downs in the past years. But Iran pursues an active diplomacy for political detente with other countries...We look more to the future than the past.''

The moderate cleric's three-day state visit follows trips to France and Italy and is Berlin's strongest gesture of support to date for a democratic reform process which is being resisted by Iran's conservative theocratic elite.


Security was extremely tight in Berlin, where the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCR) -- the political wing of the Iraq-based Mujahideen Khalq armed opposition -- said it expected 20,000 people to protest against the Tehran government.

German authorities have turned back Iranians at the border, ordered others to report to police and searched the homes of activists suspected of planning violence. The NCR said 10,000 people had been stopped from reaching Berlin for the protest.

``Freedom of expression is being curtailed at the heart of Europe for the sake of Khatami,'' complained Perviz Khazai, who represents the NCR in Scandinavia.

Police estimated the noisy but peaceful crowd demonstrating in rainy weather near Berlin's central Brandenburg gate -- just a stone's throw away from Rau's residence -- at a few thousand.

The city's interior minister, Eckart Werthebach, said he did not expect large-scale violence and had no evidence to back up media reports that reactionaries in Tehran might deploy agents provocateurs to spark trouble in a bid to discredit Khatami.

``We would be ready if that happened,'' he told ZDF public television.

Germany's domestic security service, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, has described the Mujahideen Khalq, led by Massoud Rajavi, as a sect-like movement ``exhibiting a democratic deficit coupled with a heightened readiness to commit violence.''


While the Paris-based NCR accuses Khatami of complicity in reactionary policies at home, international human rights groups back the German government's policy of diplomatic engagement to assist the reform movement of which he is the standard-bearer.

``Since President Khatami took office the atmosphere has improved considerably,'' said Barbara Lochbihler of Amnesty International's German chapter. ``But the situation is very precarious.''

That view was confirmed by clashes between secularist students and Islamic vigilantes in Tehran on Saturday, the first anniversary of the bloody suppression of a pro-democracy rally.

Khatami was due to meet Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer on Monday before seeing German business leaders on Tuesday in a bid to revive investment and trade which have tapered off in recent years.

Germany is determined to ensure that the visit passes off without incident to complete a thaw in relations that chilled in 1997 when a Berlin court accused Iran's political leadership of ordering the assassination of Kurdish dissidents in Berlin.

An Iranian court also strained relations by passing a death sentence, later revoked, against a German businessman accused of illicit sexual relations with an Iranian woman in Tehran.

Khatami, who ran an Islamic centre in Hamburg for a year before the 1979 Islamic revolution, will on Wednesday visit the eastern city of Weimar, home of 18th-century German playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.


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