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.
The Bush administration's policies have since deepened tensions between Tehran and Washington, said Khatami, who now heads the International Center for Dialogue Among Civilizations, which is based in Tehran and Geneva. Although Iran favored the Taliban's ouster from Afghanistan and an Iranian-backed Afghan movement worked with U.S. Special Forces to topple it in 2001, Khatami complained that President Bush turned around three months later and labeled Iran a member of the "axis of evil," along with Iraq and North Korea.
In Iraq, Khatami said Tehran had also recognized the U.S.-orchestrated transition governments and elections, while not insisting that the Shiite majority inherit power. "Why is it that Iran is still under so much pressure and is attacked so often by the U.S. administration, even though it cooperated in this manner?" he said. "Unfortunately, with these policies, more bricks will only be added to the wall of mistrust."
The Bush administration has repeatedly charged that Iran has undermined the political transitions in both neighboring countries while also arming and funding some of Iraq's illegal militias. Iran has long been on the State Department's list as the leading state sponsor of extremist groups, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah.
Khatami said Hezbollah's 34-day war with Israel has produced a surge of popularity throughout the Islamic world for Lebanon's Shiite movement. Most of Hezbollah's weaponry is provided by Iran.
Khatami's trip has become increasingly controversial since his arrival last Thursday. Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney yesterday ordered state agencies to refuse any form of support, including police escort, for Khatami's speech at Harvard on Sunday.
"State taxpayers should not be providing special treatment to an individual who supports violent jihad and the destruction of Israel," Romney said in a statement released by his office. Romney, a potential Republican presidential candidate, called Harvard's decision to invite Khatami a "disgrace."
As it does with current and former heads of state visiting the United States, the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security is providing protection for Khatami's 13-member entourage, which includes two of his children, during his tour of New York, Chicago, Washington, Boston and Charlottesville.
In the most unusual stop of his visit, Khatami is scheduled to tour Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home in Charlottesville. Khatami has called Jefferson a "character dear to us all." The third president is particularly popular among Middle Eastern reformers because he wrote extensively about religion and democracy.