September 22, 1998


Iranian President Paints a Picture of Peace and Moderation

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    UNITED NATIONS -- Introducing himself as "a man of the East" from "a great and renowned nation," President Mohammad Khatami of Iran tried to woo his global audience Monday with talk of how freedom-loving and law-abiding Iran is these days and asked for help in resolving the crisis in neighboring Afghanistan.

    In his first address to the General Assembly -- and his first trip to the United States -- Khatami quoted from the New Testament, the Koran and 13th-century Iranian poetry in arguing in philosophical language that dialogue is the key to understanding among nations.

    What was remarkable about the speech is what it did not say.

    There was not a word of criticism of the United States. Indeed, the only direct reference to the United States was an expression of confidence that "powerful nations, such as the American people," will reject the idea that one nation should aim to rule the world as its only superpower.

    There was much milder criticism of Israel than usual, and certainly no call to free Jerusalem from Israeli rule and no attack of the 1992 peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

    And there was no threat to invade Afghanistan, despite the presence of 200,000 Iranian troops on the Afghan border and Iran's relentless condemnation of the repression of Afghanistan under the rule of the militant Taliban movement. In fact, Khatami said, "there is no military solution to that country's predicament."

    Khatami branded the recent killing of nine Iranian diplomats and a journalist by the Sunni Muslim Taliban part of a pattern of genocide against Shiite Muslims and called on the United Nations to bring all the warring parties into negotiations.

    After Khatami's speech and an eight-country meeting on Afghanistan sponsored by the United Nations that included the United States and Iran, James P. Rubin, the State Department spokesman, said Washington was encouraged by Khatami and other Iranian officials who said they wanted a peaceful resolution to the Afghan crisis.

    Wearing a tan clerical robe, a sheer black cloak and the black turban signifying that he is a descendant of Mohammed, Khatami seemed more eager to present himself as a global philosopher than a politician with an agenda for change.

    "Allow me to speak here as a man from the East, the origin of brilliant civilizations and the birthplace of Divine Prophets: Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed, peace be upon them all," Khatami said. "I come from the noble land of Iran, representing a great and renowned nation, famous for its age-old civilization as well as its distinguished contribution to the founding and expansion of the Islamic civilization."

    As he spoke, a woman burst past guards into the General Assembly hall and screamed that Khatami was a murderer and torturer. The woman, identified by United Nations officials as Laila Jazayeri, a 37-year-old Iranian, was subdued by the United Nations security police, who handcuffed her and strapped her to a wheelchair before turning her over to the New York police.

    A block away, about 2,000 demonstrators representing the United States-based National Council of Resistance of Iran protested Khatami's visit and demanded the overthrow of the Teheran Government. The protesters were joined by Senator Robert Torricelli, the New Jersey Democrat, and two Democratic Representatives, Carolyn Maloney of New York and Robert Menendez of New Jersey.

    The last time an Iranian President addressed the General Assembly was in 1987, at the height of Iran's eight-year war with Iraq.

    The President at that time, Ali Khamenei, who is now its spiritual leader, delivered a speech that blasted the United Nations as "a paper factory for issuing worthless and ineffective orders" and the United States as a lying, imperial-minded "Great Satan" whose military activities in the Persian Gulf had turned the region into a "dangerous powder keg."

    In his current position, Ayatollah Khamenei is in charge of the armed forces, the intelligence and security forces, the judiciary and radio and television, and wields much more power than the President. But Khatami's only reference to the Ayatollah on Monday was to reaffirm support for his proposal that an Islamic country be made a permanent member in the Security Council.

    Since Khatami became President 13 months ago one of his main themes has been the need for a "dialogue among civilizations," code words for bridging the gap between an Islamic Government like Iran's, which is still subject to American economic sanctions, and secular nations around the world.

    So it was not surprising that his main proposal Monday was that the United Nations declare 2001 the "year of dialogue among civilizations." But so far Iran has rejected an American proposal for an official political dialogue with the United States, and Khatami made no mention of it in his speech.

    As for Israeli-Palestinian relations, Khatami said peace and security would come to the Middle East only when all Palestinians had the right to "exercise sovereignty over their ancestral homeland." He blamed Israel for making co-existence in Jerusalem impossible.

    "Palestine," he added, is the homeland of Muslims, Christians and Jews, "not the laboratory for the violent whims of Zionists."

    In the last year, Iran has muted its opposition to the Israeli-Palestinian agreement, but it still supports guerrillas in Lebanon intent on sabotaging the peace effort.

    The State Department, in its most recent annual report on terrorism, ranked Iran as the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism, but Khatami insisted that Iran was a victim, not a perpetrator of terrorism.

    And he called for the world to be "liberated" from nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. The United States believes that Iran is intent on developing a nuclear weapon, a charge Iran denies.

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