Khatami Arrives As U.S. Weighs Sanctions on Iran

Mohammad Khatami leaves after speaking in Streamwood, Ill., during his five-city U.S. tour. The former Iranian president will be in Washington on Thursday.
Mohammad Khatami leaves after speaking in Streamwood, Ill., during his five-city U.S. tour. The former Iranian president will be in Washington on Thursday. (By M. Spencer Green -- Associated Press)
By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 5, 2006

The stormy saga between the United States and Iran takes one of its most unusual turns since the 1979 revolution as former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami arrives in Washington to give a major address on Thursday, the same day that the Bush administration holds talks in Europe on new U.N. sanctions on Tehran.

Khatami's five-city U.S. tour this week has ignited both controversy and curiosity -- infuriating former hostages from the 1979-1981 U.S. Embassy seizure and alarming some in Congress but winning praise from foreign policy experts. The former president's speech at Washington National Cathedral is a hot ticket, with attendance now by invitation only.

Khatami's visit has also been controversial in Tehran, where a newspaper called the U.S. visa "suspicious" and a critic suggested the Shiite cleric should be defrocked for committing "worse than a sin" in his trip to the United States. Many Iranian exiles in this country are also enraged, with some threatening protests. Yet Iran's supreme leader and its hard-line current president did not try to block the visit, Iranian sources said.

Khatami's tour comes as the State Department presses for punitive action for Iran's failure to meet a U.N. deadline to suspend uranium enrichment, a process for nuclear energy that can be converted to develop a nuclear weapon. As an incentive, Washington held out the prospect of joining European talks with Iran and ending 27 years of hostility. But Iran spurned the European-designed package.

"We've been trying hard to show there are two paths here," Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns said. "That's why we made the offer to negotiate. They clearly have not accepted that path, so now we have to begin the sanctions process."

Burns will meet in Berlin on Thursday with diplomats from Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia to discuss which sanctions to impose on Iran, the first leg of what may be a heated debate. The administration hopes Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will be able to wrap up the resolution when she attends the General Assembly opening later this month.

But the administration is not cutting off all forms of dialogue. "We're going to maintain a policy of no contact between the two governments, but at the same time, that doesn't mean that Americans outside government shouldn't be talking to Iranians. Americans should take every opportunity to address the concerns we have over terrorism and nuclear issues with Iranians who visit our country," Burns said.

Khatami, who was president for the two-term limit from 1997 to 2005, is the highest-ranking Iranian to visit Washington since the Carter administration severed ties in 1980. He is also speaking in Boston, Charlottesville, Chicago and New York on the role of the three Abrahamic faiths in the peace process. He turned down an invitation to meet with former president Jimmy Carter, partly because of scheduling conflicts, according to Iranian sources.

Foreign policy analysts say the administration is signaling that it will not close the door on reformers such as Khatami who favor a freer press, political openings and dialogue with the world, while it will isolate hard-liners such as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for violating U.N. resolutions and talking about wiping Israel off the map.

But human rights groups say Khatami's government also violated human rights and supported extremist groups. He was president when President Bush labeled Iran, along with Iraq and North Korea, the "axis of evil" in 2002.

"He never wanted to create instability or a situation that would lead to violent confrontation," said Hadi Ghaemi of Human Rights Watch, an international monitoring group. "He was devoted to preserving the Islamic regime . . . so he never challenged those who had real power."

Many problems -- the crackdown on student protests, banning of new independent newspapers, and arrests and deaths of critics -- were linked to hard-liners in the separate judiciary or vigilantes sanctioned by Iranian intelligence. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, also has veto power over all government actions.

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