By Golnaz Esfandiari
PRAGUE, September 8, 2006
(RFE/RL) -- Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami told a crowd at
Washington's National Cathedral on September 7 that the language of threats must
end between Washington and Tehran.
Khatami, who has been in the United
States since last week, is the most senior Iranian official to visit Washington
since the 1979 revolution and the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, during
which U.S. diplomats were held hostage for 444 days.
It's been a highly
controversial visit with protests by Jewish groups, lawmakers, former U.S.
hostages, and also exiled Iranians who are opposed to the Iranian
Khatami's visit to the United States has also stirred
controversy in Iran, where the wife of the Iranian government's spokesman called
Khatami a U.S. mercenary and suggested that he be defrocked.
But there has also been praise for the charismatic Khatami
for being a voice of reconciliation and promoting the idea of dialogue among
During his unprecedented visit to Washington's National
Cathedral, Khatami appealed for peace and said Christians, Muslims, and Jews
should work together.
"In the beginning I would like to say that we --
the followers of 'Abrahamic' faiths -- should more than ever cooperate to expand
peace in the world and fight against violence and tools of violence," Khatami
Reporters asked Khatami about the
hottest issue on everybody's mind: Iran's controversial nuclear activities. As
expected, Khatami defended his country's nuclear program and claimed that it is
"There were efforts to access peaceful nuclear
technology under my term in office and they are continuing now," he said. "Iran
is a member of the [Nuclear] Nonproliferation Treaty [NPT] and, according to the
NPT, all member countries have the right to have this technology. There are ways
to control that there are no deviations. Until now, the UN nuclear agency has
said in all of its reports that there are no signs that Iran has diverted its
[peaceful nuclear energy] program toward making nuclear weapons."
also renewed his call for the Middle East to be free of weapons of mass
destruction. He said countries with nuclear weapons, such as Israel, India, and
Pakistan, should join the NPT.
The former Iranian president is in the United States
on a private visit and U.S. officials have said that they have no plans to meet
Khatami, who was Iranian president from 1997 to 2005, has
called for "a dialogue with the American people."
Speaking in the
Washington cathedral, Khatami said there should be a change from aggressive
rhetoric to the "language of understanding" before there can be a dialogue
between Washington and Tehran.
"I believe that before there can be some
basis for talks between senior [U.S. and Iranian] officials, misunderstandings
between the two countries should be removed," he said. "Unfortunately, these
misunderstandings have a historical aspect. Naturally both sides have
complaints; some are justified and some are not. We should be ready for talks
based on mutual respect and equal rights."
Khatami was also asked about Iran's human rights situation
and whether a dialogue of differing political views could be
He admitted there
are problems in Iran and said human rights violations should be condemned
wherever they take place.
Khatami, whose efforts to bring democratic
changes in Iran were stymied by conservatives, said, "Democracy is a process,
not a project."
"I think the Iranian society is moving in that direction,
[though] it is facing problems and obstacles. There are conservatives and
moderates in all societies but I believe all societies, including Iran, are
moving toward moderation and democracy," Khatami said. "We may have problems in
Iran -- I protested [against them] myself -- but you should not compare Iran
with countries that have experienced democracy for two
Khatami also rejected the idea that some of the changes
achieved under his two terms could be rolled back by his hard-line successor,
Mahmud Ahmadinejad. He said the base of the Islamic Republic's policies remain
Khatami said there are less problems in Iran than in places
such as the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
U.S. tour, Khatami has attended a UN conference and other religious and academic
events in several cities, including New York and Chicago.
In interviews with U.S. media he has criticized
U.S. President George W. Bush and said that U.S. policies are fueling terrorism.
U.S. officials have said that Khatami should be able to speak his mind.
But they have also said that he should expect tough questions being posed to
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said earlier this week
that Khatami should be asked "the kind of questions that, if [they were] asked
in Iran, would get the questioner thrown in jail."
While Khatami was
speaking to reporters in the cathedral, about 300 protesters gathered outside
demonstrated for freedom and democracy in Iran.
"We came here to tell all
the people in the world we need freedom in [Iran]; we support all the young
students in our country [and] we don't want this regime, we don't want an
Islamic Republic," one protester said. "We want freedom."
correspondent Heather Maher in Washington and Radio Farda contributed to this