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Khatami Fears Tug of War Will Open Iran to Extremists

Los Angeles Times
September 9, 2000

UNITED NATIONS -- President Mohammad Khatami warned Thursday that growing polarization over the direction of Iran's post-revolutionary society may trigger new confrontations and violence and has already forced his government to slow the pace of change.

In a sobering assessment of Iran's internal strife, Khatami pledged that he still stands for sweeping reforms in the Islamic theocracy. But he warned that public demands for change "should not rise beyond what is possible."

"The people have a certain understanding of their rights, which may be more than the government can offer right now," he said, with exceptional candor, to a small group of reporters at the U.N. Millennium Summit.

In a message that will echo back home, he also cautioned that reformers "have to be careful not to lose what we have achieved" so far.

Because of serious differences between rival camps, Iran's leadership cannot leave society "in a state that is vulnerable to various forces that endanger peace and security," he added at a later news conference.

The charismatic Iranian leader, whose upset election three years ago led to widespread expectations of political and social openings, even indicated that he may be only a transition figure as the strategic and oil-rich country struggles to move from a revolutionary society toward a new form of Islamic democracy.

It has been an escalating battle to achieve those reforms. During the past six months, the two most outspoken elements in the pro-Khatami reform movement--young people, who account for about 65% of Iran's population of 70 million, and the independent media--have faced increasing repression at the hands of conservatives and surrogate vigilantes.

Twenty reformist papers have been silenced and many journalists imprisoned.

Last month, Iran witnessed a week of unrest in the western city of Khorramabad after conservative vigilantes attacked two leading reformist intellectuals who had flown in to address a national summit of student leaders. The two were eventually forced to flee back to Tehran, the capital, without giving their speeches. Sporadic clashes during the national student conference left dozens injured and only petered out last weekend, according to local reports.

The Iranian president conceded his own frustration at the clampdown on the media by the nation's conservative judiciary and said he hoped that the papers eventually will be allowed to reopen. But he said he would not invoke powers beyond his constitutional mandate to respond, implying--but not formally charging--that others were working outside the law.

At the same time, he acknowledged the dangers of failing the 70% majority that elected him in 1997 and went on to elect reformist city councils in 1999 and a reformist majority in parliament earlier this year.

"Any effort that would lead to failure of reform will lead to a disheartening of the people and pave the way for destruction of the will of the people--and for extremist groups to enter the scene," he said at the news conference.

"Extremism in any form, in any direction, is unwanted, whether it's in the name of freedom or of suppressing the rights of the people, so we must create a balance," he said.

Khatami's admission that his reform agenda is in trouble was a stark contrast to his other appearance at the U.N. two years ago, when he heralded a new era of openness and democracy in the Islamic Republic. This year he stressed that reform did not mean "a denial of the past" or "an overthrow of the system" and said it was unfair to compare two or three centuries of democracy in the West with countries such as Iran.

In line with the gradual thaw between Iran and the United States--which has played out in New York this week with President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright both making highly visible efforts to listen to the Iranian leader's two U.N. speeches--Khatami called for a formal apology for the CIA's role in a 1953 coup. That U.S. support helped topple a nationalist leader and allowed Iran's pro-Western shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, to return and rule for a quarter-century more.

"If the Americans agree to do this, it will be a very big step," he said.

In a more sweeping statement that could herald an eventual thaw toward Israel too, Khatami said his government's "detente policy is open to all countries of the world. We don't welcome animosity or tension with any country."

The Iranian president, who is holding about 40 bilateral meetings with other world leaders during the U.N. summit, said President Vladimir V. Putin wants to strengthen Russia's strategic relationship with Iran. Tehran welcomes the overture because of shared interests in the regional problems of the Caspian Sea, Central Asia and the Caucasus Mountains, and the potential for technical and industrial cooperation.

Closer relations also would "pave the way to marginalize external powers" trying to meddle in the region, he said, without specifying which nations.



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