By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 30, 2006
For an event that would turn a page in American history, former president Jimmy Carter has agreed in principle to host former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami for talks during his visit to the United States starting this week.
Carter's term as president was dominated by the rupture in relations after the 1979 Iranian revolution and the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, where 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days until the day he left office.
Iranians made the overture for the meeting, and the Carter Center in Atlanta is working on the possible timing, said Phil Wise, the former president's aide.
"President Carter, in his role since leaving the White House, has made his office and services and center available to basically anybody who wants to talk. He believes that it is much better to be talking to people who you have problems with than not to, and that's the approach he takes now," Wise said. "I can confirm that President Carter is open to a meeting if the former president of Iran would like to have one."
Despite mounting tensions between Washington and Tehran over the latter's nuclear program, the Bush administration issued a visa for Khatami yesterday, as well as for about a dozen family and staff members, for a visit lasting about two weeks, the State Department confirmed. Khatami is expected to arrive in the United States tomorrow.
Khatami, a reformer who served as president from 1997 to 2005, is scheduled to speak at the Washington National Cathedral on Sept. 7. His schedule may include speeches at the University of Virginia and to an Islamic group in Chicago. He may also pay a private visit to Thomas Jefferson's home at Monticello, according to sources familiar with his trip. He will begin his visit in New York at a U.N. conference on the dialogue of civilizations.
The White House said yesterday that Khatami had been invited by private organizations and is not part of the current Iranian government.
"Mr. Khatami is free to meet with who he chooses and is able to speak freely in the United States -- the very freedoms that do not exist in Iran," a White House official said on the condition of anonymity.
"We expect that Khatami will face tough questions from his audience in the United States about the past and present behavior of the Iranian regime, especially with respect to human rights violations that occurred during his presidency," the official added.
Talks between Carter and Khatami, if they materialize, would be politically poignant.
"Carter, who has every reason to be angry about the way in which the Iranian revolution undid his presidency over the hostage affair, is willing to meet, with no hesitation, a person who was president of the Islamic republic and who has never disavowed Ayatollah Khomeini's actions when he was supreme leader," said William Quandt, a national security staffer in charge of the Middle East during the Carter administration.