USA Today 5/9/2006
U.S., Iran share interests in Iraq, Khatami says
By Barbara Slavin, USA TODAY
NEW YORK — Former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami said Monday that U.S. forces should remain in Iraq until that country's fragile government can assume greater control.
In an interview here during his first trip to the United States since leaving office a year ago, Khatami said, "We can't leave this newly formed government at the mercy of terrorists and insurgents."
Khatami is a moderate Islamic cleric who was president from 1997 to 2005. By law, he could not seek a third consecutive term. He was succeeded by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a hard-line fundamentalist.
Despite the change in the leadership, Khatami said that Iran is not the enemy of the United States and that the two countries share strategic interests in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Khatami said Iran, which is predominantly Shiite, didn't provide weapons to Iraqi Shiites while he was in power. He said he doubts that the current leadership is doing so, as has been charged by U.S. officials including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. "No one will benefit as much as Iran from peace and stability in Iraq," he said.
Addressing the issue that is creating the most tension between Iran and the international community, Khatami urged the Bush administration and his own government to resolve the dispute over Iran's nuclear program through negotiations.
While not directly criticizing his successor, Khatami noted that when he was in office, Iran suspended efforts to make nuclear fuel and agreed to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Iran has reversed both policies in the past year and rejected an Aug. 31 United Nations deadline to either suspend its uranium enrichment program or face sanctions. "Sanctions are to the detriment of Iran," Khatami said. "Sanctions — and, even worse than that, military action — will only serve to complicate the issue, not solve the problem."
He criticized both Ahmadinejad and President Bush for using intemperate language that has heightened tensions. "A politician must conduct himself at the highest level of etiquette and diplomacy," Khatami said, when asked about Ahmadinejad's comments threatening Israel and denying the Holocaust. Khatami said he hoped Bush's use of the term "Islamic fascism" to describe countries such as Iran "is a misquote. It would be unfortunate that a president of the great nation of America would use words in such an irresponsible way."
Khatami spent the weekend in Chicago, where he told a conference of U.S. Muslims that the U.S.-led war on terrorism is increasing violence and Muslim hatred for the West. He attends meetings at the U.N. today and Wednesday, then flies to Washington to speak at National Cathedral.
Khatami, 62, now heads a group called the International Center for Dialogue Among Civilizations, based in Tehran and Geneva. He said he was devoting his time to trying to increase understanding among nationalities, religious and ethnic groups.
He described his visit as private and said he had not sought to meet U.S. officials.
Several U.S. politicians and interest groups criticized the State Department for giving Khatami a visa. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., called Khatami "one of the chief propagandists of the Islamic fascist regime." State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Khatami was eligible to visit as a private citizen.
Khatami visited New York three times as president but was never allowed to go outside New York. Asked his impressions of the country so far, Khatami said he was happy to have the chance to travel with fewer restrictions but that to see America fully would require "much more time."