War Backfiring on U.S., Khatami Says

Former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami, right, and Desmond Tutu, left, the archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, participate in a high-level group of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations meeting at U.N. headquarters. Khatami is to speak tomorrow in Washington.
Former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami, right, and Desmond Tutu, left, the archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, participate in a high-level group of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations meeting at U.N. headquarters. Khatami is to speak tomorrow in Washington. (By David Karp -- Associated Press)

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By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 6, 2006

NEW YORK -- On the eve of his first trip to Washington, former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami warned that U.S. military action in the Middle East has backfired, producing greater terrorism, imperiling the future of Iraq and damaging America's long-term interests.

But the danger of even greater instability in the region will ultimately prevent the United States from launching military strikes against Iran over disputes about its nuclear intentions, he predicted. Although an attack on Iran would create "great damage," Khatami said, "prudence and wisdom" are likely to prevail because of the incalculable "detriment and damage" it would cause to both the region and the United States.

"America will not make the mistake of attacking Iran," he said, adding: "Iran is not Iraq."

In a wide-ranging interview Monday night, Khatami said Iran is not intent on eliminating Israel and accepts a two-state solution that includes both Israel and a new Palestine -- on terms acceptable to the Palestinians. He basically contradicted the recent angry rhetoric of his hard-line successor, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has denied the Holocaust and has called for Israel to be wiped off the map.

"The practical policy of the Islamic republic has never been to eliminate or wipe Israel off the map. And I don't believe that this policy has changed with the change of president," Khatami said in an interview in New York, where he is attending a United Nations conference. "You've never heard me reject the right of anyone to exist," added Khatami, who is scheduled to speak at the University of Virginia and the Washington National Cathedral on Thursday.

Khatami ran for office as a reformer and served the two-term presidential limit from 1997 until 2005. Many of his proposed domestic reforms -- from press freedoms to limiting the 12-member Council of Guardians' veto powers -- were blocked by hard-liners now in ascendance. Much of Iran's foreign policy, however, is formulated by consensus after intense debate among its disparate political factions.

Khatami called concern about nuclear proliferation generally "very justified" and insisted that Tehran has not rejected U.S.-backed incentives to end uranium enrichment for its nuclear energy program, a process that can be subverted to develop a nuclear weapon. A U.N. resolution called for Iran to suspend enrichment by Aug. 31 or face punitive action.

"The package has not been rejected," he said, adding that Iran does not yet trust guarantees from the international community that it will have long-term access to fuel for energy, given past failed promises. "The situation can best be resolved by not going toward action that could exacerbate the situation," he said.

On Iraq's future, he said all countries should "seriously and steadfastly" strive to prevent a civil war. He blamed the violence on terrorists who claim to act in the name of religion but instead undermine it.

He warned, however, that Iraq reflects the failure of U.S. policy. "So far, whenever the United States has tried to solve its disputes through military means, it has not achieved its objectives -- and also not solved the problem it meant to solve," he said.

A Shiite cleric who wears the black turban of a descendant of the prophet Muhammad, Khatami expressed regret that he and President Bill Clinton could not do more after both took tentative steps to heal relations severed by the 1979 U.S. Embassy seizure, when 52 Americans were held for 444 days.

"The misunderstanding and mistrust between the two sides was so deep that it could not be solved with these simple minor steps," he said. "The pressure that existed on both sides also meant that we had to proceed with caution." Khatami had publicly called for both sides to bring down the wall of mistrust and encouraged cultural exchanges, and Clinton lifted sanctions on carpets, pistachios and caviar from Iran.


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