Iran dismisses U.S. talks -- for now 'Mistrust' must end before Khatami will speak directly to U.S.

January 08, 1998|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Iran's president rejected anew last night the possibility of an official dialogue with Washington anytime soon. But he called for the peoples of the two countries to expand their understanding of each other through academic and cultural exchanges.

In what was billed as a message to the American people, President Mohammad Khatami said in an unusual interview with CNN that before the two nations could end 19 years of antagonism, there must first be "a crack in the wall of mistrust." Khatami blamed "hostile" U.S. policies for causing that mistrust.

"When I speak of dialogue, I intend dialogue between civilizations and culture," said Khatami, a moderate cleric who since his election last spring has sought to ease tensions with the West without angering hard-line Iranians who despise the United States. "Such dialogue should be centered around thinkers and intellectuals."

"I believe that all doors should now be opened for such dialogue and understanding and possibilities for contact even between American and Iranian citizens should become available," said Khatami, who served as culture minister after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Khatami's offer was greeted with disappointment from the State Department. In a statement released moments after the taped televised interview ended, the department's chief spokesman, James P. Rubin, said: "We welcome the fact that he wants a dialogue with the American people. But we continue to believe that the way to address the issues between us is for our two governments to talk directly."

Khatami had delivered a similar message of rapprochement with the American people at a news conference Dec. 14 during a Muslim conference in Tehran.

What was new in his remarks last night was his specific suggestion of academic and cultural exchanges. Travel to Iran is not now officially barred, and American journalists travel there periodically. In addition, there are limited academic exchanges between the two nations. But Washington warns U.S. citizens that it is unsafe to travel there.

In an Iranian government controlled by Islamic clerics, Khatami is decidedly moderate. Since he was elected president on a platform of openness in domestic policy, Western and officials and analysts have looked to him to help diminish Iran's role as a threat to Western nations and Israel.

U.S. officials say Iran subsidizes acts of terrorism against Western interests, is trying to develop an atomic bomb and other weapons of mass destruction and foments violent opposition to the Middle East peace process between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Khatami denied these charges last night.

The United States severed ties with Iran in 1979 after Islamic militants loyal to the revolutionary government of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.

Khatami said he regretted that American feelings had been hurt.

"In the heat of the revolutionary fervor, things happen which cannot be fullly contained or judged according to usual norms," he said. Today, Americans would be safer, he indicated.

The Khatami interview, conducted by CNN's Christiane Amanpour, was eagerly awaited by the Clinton administration, which has grown weary of its unsuccessful effort to isolate the Iranian regime internationally.

Earlier yesterday, Rubin said: "The president is going to be watching carefully what President Khatami has to say. Secretary [of State Madeleine K.] Albright will be watching carefully what President Khatami has to say."

Khatami, however, suggested that for a dialogue to open, the United States would have to moderate its own policies, which include economic sanctions against U.S. and foreign companies that invest in Iran's oil industry.

"Unfortunately, the behavior of American government[s] in the past, up to this date, has always exacerbated the climate of mistrust, and we do not detect any sign of change of behavior. We are looking for a world in which misunderstanding can be overcome, nations can understand one another, and mutual respect and logic govern relations among states."

One U.S. analyst, Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said last night that Khatami had effectively ruled out any dialogue between the two governments.

In the interview, Khatami rejected the main U.S. accusations against his government. He said terrorism was incompatible with Islam and that Iran has no intention of building weapons of mass destruction. He also said Iranian leaders oppose actions -- such as burning the American flag -- that might offend U.S. citizens.

Khatami spoke of his admiration for the American people and their history. But he criticized Washington for a "flawed policy of domination" he said was rooted in a Cold War mentality.

During the Khatami interview, conducted Tuesday, Amanpour wore a dark blue cloak covering her hair in deference to Iran's Muslim customs.

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