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Visiting Iran official draws both sympathizers and protests

By Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson
Los Angeles Times
September 24, 2000

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi wrapped up the Southern California portion of an unprecedented tour of the United States Saturday night, telling a sympathetic audience of expatriates to rejoice in an independent Iran.

The highest-ranking Iranian official permitted to travel widely in the U.S. since the overthrow of the shah more than two decades ago, Kharrazi also urged the audience to speak for the rights of Iranians everywhere.

"Why shouldn't Iran have a strong lobby here to fight for the rights of Iranians?" he asked.

On his stops last week, Kharrazi drew both angry protesters and Iranian Americans eager for their adopted home to reestablish ties with their native country.

His presence on American soil was yet another sign of the Clinton administration's interest in warmer relations with the Islamic republic.

"Let's gather around and talk about Iran to enrich our souls," Kharrazi said in a speech to several hundred at the Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel, here Saturday night.

Earlier in the evening, as Mercedeses and BMWs deposited Kharrazi's audience at the hotel, about 100 demonstrators screamed and pelted the luxury cars with eggs and plastic bottles.

"Death to the Islamic republic!" and "Kharrazi must go!" they yelled.

"The United States is always talking about human rights," said one protester named Shahla, an Orange County family therapist who declined to give her last name. "Iran is one of the countries that abuses human rights, especially women's rights."

"This is wrong," she complained. "The U.S. should not have given permission to this guy to be here."

At least four demonstrators were arrested, according to the Orange County Sheriff's Department.

The mood was much friendlier inside a Ritz-Carlton ballroom, where guests chatted over food and drinks before hearing Kharrazi's remarks.

Amir Fassihi of Los Angeles said he sympathized with the protesters' concerns but disliked their tactics.

"I think it's OK to voice opposition but I think it's wrong to block opposing opinions," he said. "With that attitude you can't advance consensus.

Kharrazi spoke Monday at the Kennedy School at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., and Thursday at UCLA.

Security was tight at every event and safety concerns prompted a change of location for Saturday's gathering, which had originally been planned for UC Irvine, said a member of Kharrazi's entourage.

Some of those who attended the UCLA gathering were businessmen interested in opening avenues of trade to the oil- and mineral-rich nation of their birth.

It was to those interests that Kharrazi played, highlighting Iran's wealth in resources and its prime location at the intersection of Eastern and Western interests.

Just as there was disagreement over Kharrazi's American visit, there is considerable political tension in Iran.

Although hard-liners led by the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have lost the presidency and much of parliament, they still control the judiciary and the military and have tried to stall the reform movement that is working to loosen restrictions on personal and press freedoms.

Iranian Americans who support reestablishing U.S. ties with Iran argue that a lack of political contact with the West and continued economic sanctions only help the anti-reformists.

But Kharrazi protesters strongly disagree.

Many of the demonstrators demand that Iran establish the rights they have in their adopted homeland: freedom of speech, assembly, press and religion and separation of church and state.

They also condemn their homeland for holding political prisoners during the last 21 years, torturing and executing many of them.

"All I want to know is why they executed my husband 12 years ago," demanded a demonstrator at UCLA as tears streamed down her cheeks.

Kharrazi said during both the UCLA and Ritz-Carlton gatherings that he was not bothered by the protests.

"I believe in Islamic democracy," he said. "But those people who resort to aggressive behavior . . . have to be taught how to express themselves lovingly and without aggression."

* Times staff writer Bettina Boxall and correspondent Renee Moilanen contributed to this story.


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