Visiting Iran official draws both sympathizers and
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
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!"
"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
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
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
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.