Former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami yesterday defended his country’s nuclear program and rejected suggestions that freedom and human rights in Iran had deteriorated under his hard-line successor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Mr. Khatami, who is considered a moderate in Iran’s political spectrum, told reporters at the Washington National Cathedral shortly before delivering a speech on “dialogue of civilizations” that Iran’s nuclear effort is peaceful and that the world should focus on the atomic arsenals of Israel and other states before criticizing Iran.
At the press conference, Mr. Khatami said Iran could discuss suspending its nuclear program once talks with the West had begun. After meeting with reporters he addressed an audience of about 1,200 people at the cathedral.
That also was a paraphrase of the official Iranian position that there should be talks without preconditions.
Mr. Khatami appeared to be warning the United States against using force against Iran, saying this would never resolve the standoff over Iran’s suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Iran would not give up its nuclear program in the face of outside pressure, he said. “We must eliminate the language for the dialogue to be successful.”
Dressed in a full-length black robe and black turban, Mr. Khatami said Iran’s political system should not be judged by the standards of established Western democracies because the United States’ own human rights record is not perfect.
“Iran has its problems, but they are not greater than the violations of human rights we saw at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo,” he said.
As Mr. Khatami spoke, a crowd of about 50 demonstrators gathered across the street from the cathedral, waving U.S. and Iranian flags and demanding freedom for the Iranian people.
In Berlin, meanwhile, the United States and five other countries remained deadlocked in negotiations over whether to punish Iran for continuing its nuclear program in defiance of the U.N. Security Council.
Mr. Khatami acknowledged that his two-week American tour had been criticized by religious hard-liners in Iran, but he said he did not think that Iran had regressed under Mr. Ahmadinejad.
“I don’t think things have reversed,” he said. “Of course their interpretation may be different than mine, but on women and youth, the new president has said things that are very hopeful.”
Mr. Ahmadinejad has enforced dress codes requiring that women be dressed in black or dark blue Islamic garb from head to toe and has begun a campaign to purge liberal and secular professors from the nation’s universities. Mr. Khatami’s successor has also called for Israel’s destruction.
Mr. Khatami spoke in Farsi, the official language of Iran, and his remarks were translated by an interpreter. He began with a short statement, in which he praised Jesus and Muhammad as great prophets. He then took questions from reporters who packed the southeast section of the cathedral nave.
He spoke against the backdrop of a banner proclaiming “My house shall be called the house of prayer for all people.” (Isaiah 56:7)