At Cathedral, Iran's Khatami Urges Dialogue

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By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 8, 2006

Amid noisy protests and tight security, former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami issued a call at the Washington National Cathedral yesterday for leaders in both the West and the Islamic world to launch a historic dialogue to "rescue life from the claws of the warmongers and violence-seekers and ostentatious leaders."

But Khatami, who served as president between 1997 and 2005, signaled that the time is not yet right for direct dialogue between the United States and Iran. He warned that the language of threats needs to end for any negotiation to have a chance -- an indirect reference to U.S. and U.N. pressure to impose new sanctions on Iran because of disputes over its nuclear program.

Khatami said Iran is prepared to discuss the suspension -- both the timing and the scope -- of its uranium enrichment in negotiations.

The former Iranian leader, who was elected on a reform platform but failed to deliver significant change, called the United States a "great" country "with great people, great capacities, and potential" -- language that stood in stark contrast to more than a quarter-century of Iran calling the United States "the Great Satan."

But he also condemned its unilateral foreign policy, and he cautioned at a news conference before last night's speech that Washington would be more effective if it worked alongside other nations.

Khatami, who is a mid-level Shiite cleric and wears the black turban of a descendant of the prophet Muhammad, focused heavily on religious themes and the need for the three Abrahamic faiths -- Judaism, Islam and Christianity -- to work together.

"Jesus is the prophet of kindness and peace. Muhammad is the prophet of ethics, morality and grace. Moses is the prophet of dialogue and exchange," he said. "It's good at the present time, where war, violence and repression is so prevalent across the world, for all of us who are followers of God's religion to pursue all efforts for the establishment of peace and security."

Khatami said he was not concerned about the vitriolic criticism that his five-city speaking tour of the United States has prompted in Iran. "If you want to accept to live in a democratic state, a democratic society, we have to tolerate the voices of dissent," he said.

Critics have charged that Khatami's trip is riddled with hypocritical contradictions since, during his presidency, the Islamic republic was guilty of widespread human rights abuses. Although Iran's hard-line judiciary is widely blamed for the arrest of dissidents, Khatami was unable to restrain political rivals.

Pressed on Iran's abuses, Khatami said he would not deny that his country has serious problems, but he cautioned that democracy is a "process" that cannot reverse centuries of despotic rule overnight. Iran was ruled by various dynasties for some 2,500 years.

As Khatami spoke inside the limestone Gothic cathedral, hundreds of diplomatic security agents, including their own SWAT teams, surrounded the church grounds.

On the other side of Wisconsin Avenue, a crowd of about 200 shouted, "Shame on you," as invitees waited to pass through security and enter the cathedral gates. Khatami spoke before an audience of 1,300.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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