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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 un-Islamic.

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 weapon.

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," he said.

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."


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