Iranian president offers critical words on democratic
reformers and the US
By Elaine Sciolino
The New York Times
August 27, 2000
President Mohammad Khatami of Iran criticized his country's democratic
reformers on Thursday for their unrealistic expectations and urged his
people to avoid extremes in the name of promoting either security or freedom.
At a news conference in a meeting room of the U.N. Plaza Hotel, Khatami
also criticized the international outrage over his country's prosecution
and conviction of a group of Jews as spies and ruled out an official dialogue
with the United States until Washington changed its ways.
Khatami, a mid-level cleric trained in philosophy, was swept into office
in an upset landslide victory in 1997 on a platform promoting tolerance
and the rule of law. But between smiles, he was defensive as he fielded
tough questions about the recent setbacks in Iran's fledgling reform movement.
Speaking in Persian and dressed in the turban, robe and cloak that identify
him as a cleric, Khatami made little effort to charm journalists, as he
did during his maiden voyage to the United Nations two years ago. Back
then, he told journalists how he had started out as a journalist and editor,
expressed his admiration for the American Puritans, summarized the definition
of justice in Plato's Republic and said he wished he could be a tourist
and spend up to a month in America.
On Thursday, he stressed that his country's moves toward democracy
should not be compared to countries in the West with two to three centuries
of experience, and called for moderation.
"You cannot endanger security for the sake of freedom, and you
cannot endanger freedom for the sake of security," Khatami said. "This
is a delicate balance."
Describing his people as "impatient," he said, "the
demands of the people should not rise beyond possibilities." Complicating
matters are the constant complaints about the country's inflation and high
unemployment, especially among young people, which, he said, "add
to certain expectations not in sync with the possibilities of the times."
He warned against extremism, which, he said, "in any form, any
direction is unwanted, whether in the name of freedom and supporting people's
rights or in the name of security and suppressing people's rights."
Khatami even suggested that he might not run for re-election next May,
although Iran's state-run television quoted him recently as saying that
he would run again. And he seemed to distance himself from the reform movement
that was sparked after his victory, saying, "Let me remind you that
I did not come in the name of reform."
The Iranian president is caught in the middle of an intense and dangerous
power struggle between reformers and conservatives in Iran. Increasingly,
conservative forces opposed to democratic reform who enjoy the financial
backing of well-placed power brokers have been willing to use any means
- including violence - to maintain a hold on various spheres of power.
Most recently, vigilantes, many of them armed with batons and other
weapons, took over the airport and forcibly prevented two reformist leaders
from speaking in the western industrial city of Khorramabad, sparking days
of rioting with students in which a policeman was killed and more than
100 people were injured.
In addition, in the past several months, more than a score of Iran's
reformist newspapers and magazines have been shut down, many of its reformist
journalists and clerics have been put into prison and its judiciary, dominated
by ultraconservative clerics, is determined to punish any behavior it considers
Khatami has struggled to prevent violent confrontations by calling
over and over for calm. But since nationwide riots last year, students
have become more organized and are beginning to say that passive resistance
will no longer work.
In his news conference on Thursday, Khatami also said the international
reaction to the case of ten Iranian Jews and two Muslims convicted in July
of espionage was overblown.
"Why do you never mention the Muslims convicted by the same court
and who are still in prison for the same reasons?" he asked, adding,
"If instead of these Jews they were Christians, would the world still
react as it did today?"
Asked why he did not personally intervene in the case, Khatami stressed
that the executive branch should not interfere in the work of the judiciary.
But he added that the cases are before the appeals court, and expressed
the hope that "no one will be convicted beyond their actual guilt."
Khatami downplayed the importance of a recent meeting in New York between
Iranian parliamentary deputies and U.S. congressmen as "unplanned."
He also ruled out the possibility that the meeting might be a prelude
to higher-level meetings with U.S. officials. Citing "serious issues"
dividing the two nations, Khatami called on the United States to "confess"
its involvement in the coup orchestrated by the Central Intelligence Agency
in 1953 that overthrew the government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh
and restored Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to power. "This confession
will be a big step forward," he said.
When reminded that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright essentially
apologized for the 1953 coup in a speech on Iran in March, Khatami listed
a number of other grievances against the United States, including economic
sanctions and the Clinton administration's opposition to the construction
of a pipeline through Iran to ship oil and gas from the Caspian Sea.
"In the West, people still refuse to understand that the cheapest,
fastest route transferring energy from the Caspian is through Iran,"
Khatami said. He also cited U.S. "allegations" against Iran,
code for U.S. assertions that Iran is involved in sponsoring international
terrorism and is developing weapons of mass destruction, including a nuclear
He called on the United States to offer "apologies" and "practical
measures" to prove that the nature of the relationship has changed.
"Unfortunately, the Americans have been less inclined to do that,"
Earlier in the morning, at a breakfast with a small number of journalists,
many of whom Khatami knows, he was more relaxed. When Christiane Amanpour
of CNN asked him a pointed question, just as he dug into his cornflakes,
he replied: "Is this an interview or a friendly conversation over
breakfast? Allow me to continue our friendly chat."