Khatami urges tolerance, but defends Iran's nuclear program

Tells House of Lords: Dialogue between Islamic world, West would create united international community.

Mohammad khatami 224 88 ap (photo credit: AP)
Mohammad khatami 224 88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
Former Iranian president Muhammad Khatami called for a new world order based on religious pluralism and tolerance in a series of speeches given in Britain and France over the past week. Religious and political dialogue between the West and the Islamic world would create an international community "that is closely united in terms of enjoying spirituality, freedom, progress and justice while respecting differences in religious rites and rituals," he told members of the House of Lords in London. Khatami returned to Teheran Monday following a seven-day European tour that took in three days of meetings of UNESCO in Paris, receiving an honorary degree at St. Andrews University in Scotland, foreign policy addresses at Chatham House in London and at St. Antony's College in Oxford, and meetings with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, members of the House of Lords, and the Muslim Council of Britain, and high profile interviews on British television. Khatami's visit, which was approved earlier this year by then-foreign secretary Jack Straw, elicited protests from Iranian exiles, human rights activists and Jewish groups. A crowd of several hundred demonstrators outside London's Chatham House during his speech at the think tank Wednesday forced him to enter and leave through the backdoor. The former president's message has come in sharp contrast with the public statements of Iran's current leadership, prompting speculation among academics that his European tour was evidence of friction within the Islamic republic's ruling oligarchy. Other Iran specialists have suggested Khatami's "sweet reasonableness" toward the West was designed to deflect criticism of its nuclear ambitions and foreign policy adventures. The current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has repeatedly called for the annihilation of Israel and has welcomed a "clash of civilizations" between Iran and the West. In speeches to the United Nations and at home, Ahmadinejad has said his mission was to prepare the ground for the apocalypse in the form of the return of the Hidden Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi. According to Shi'ite belief, the return of the 12th, or Hidden, Imam, will mark the end of history and will culminate in the final battle between good and evil. The No. 2 man in Teheran's clerical leadership, the president of the Assembly of Experts, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Meshkini, has also called for a confrontation with the West. In September he said the Islamic Republic was the world's only legitimate government and had a duty to extend its sway over the whole earth. In his speech at St. Andrews University last Tuesday, Khatami sounded a different note, calling for mutual respect and tolerance among religious believers. "If someone does not share their religion with me, they are definitely respectable and entitled to receive compassion as human beings," he said, citing the authority of Imam Ali, whom Shi'ites believe Muhammad appointed the religion's first imam and rightful caliph. "The call by our imam is clear. He recommends not only tolerance but something beyond that, which he refers to as profound compassion. One can live within the religious, geographical and political borders but they must extend love profusely," Khatami said. Speaking at St. Antony's College, Oxford, on Friday, he criticized Muslim voices that said "religion and democracy are incompatible." The challenge facing the Muslim world was to "keep pace with this new commodity while preserving its own identity and substance," he said. He urged British Muslims to be "British first" and "observe the rules and regulations of citizenship." Citing the controversy in Britain over the wearing of veils, he said, "In a Christian country, for a Muslim women wearing veil and scarf is not an obligation," but a matter of personal choice. The Archbishop of Canterbury met with Khatami at Lambeth Palace in London and discussed social and spiritual issues common to the two faiths. Williams said he was "heartened by the support Mr. Khatami expressed for the idea that religious leaders in places of tension and conflict should play a vital role in building confidence and trust between communities." Khatami, however, did not stray too far from Teheran's line, rejecting US President George W. Bush's call for an Anglo-American-style democracy to be "exported" to the region. "It's a great joke, the greatest joke that Mr. Bush said, that he would like to export democracy to the Middle East. Democracy is not something to get exported," Khatami told a Chatham House audience, but must arise from within the Muslim world's political-theological culture. He called for the West to moderate its language, saying assertions that "Islam is a major hurdle that stalls democracy" played into the hands of extremists and encouraged Islamist terrorism. "One of the main factors that lead to resistance, extremism and violence taking shape in the Islamic world is the approach and performance of the carriers and agents of [Western] civilization," he said. In an interview with British television, Khatami said Iran was prepared to talk to the United States about an exit strategy from Iraq, "through an international activity under the auspicious supervision of the United Nations. I think the ground is prepared to do so." "I am strongly of the opinion that Iran doesn't have any military intervention in Iraq," he said, denying charges it was funding and equipping separatist Shi'ite militias. "Terrorist are attacking Europeans and Americans and at the same time they're attacking Shi'ites on a larger scale" in Iraq, Khatami said at Chatham House. "We are against terrorist attacks in Iraq." He also said American attempts to end terrorism had been a "great mistake" and its policies had fostered a "new version of terrorism." Khatami defended Iran's nuclear program, saying, "There is no aim and goal to achieve any sort of nuclear weapons." He added that three of Iran's neighbors, Israel, India and Pakistan, were members of the nuclear club. He rejected charges that Iran used torture against dissidents. Under the Shah, Khatami said, torture was used against domestic opponents, and it was currently used by the US and Israel. "If torture is in Iranian prisons then it should be condemned," he said. "I was the first one protesting such kind of behavior" as president. "If I was aware of such kind of behavior I would for sure react." Last week two Iranian exiles filed a complaint with the London Metropolitan Police alleging they had been unlawfully imprisoned and tortured by the Khatami regime. Under British law, those accused of torture, committed anywhere in the world, can be tried in the UK. On Monday, the police said it would not be pursuing the case due to a lack of evidence.