Ayatollah decries Iran's overture to U.S. Supreme leader avoids criticizing president

January 17, 1998|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

CAIRO, Egypt -- In a sermon punctuated by cries of "Death to America," Ayatollah Ali Khamenei laid down a tough line yesterday against any normalizing of ties with the United States, saying such scandalous talk must not be tolerated.

But Iran's supreme leader stopped short of criticizing Mohammad Khatami, the country's popular president who last week urged a U.S.-Iranian cultural exchange, professed admiration for American civilization and suggested removing the wall of mistrust" between the two countries.

Khamenei's speech appeared to be another example of the hard-line leader and the moderate president speaking in contradictory voices for the country of 61 million, as they have since Khatami took office in August.

Khamenei, the disciple of and hand-picked successor to the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, is constitutionally Iran's ultimate spiritual, moral and legal power. He ranks above Khatami. But the elected president, who heads the executive branch of government, has the advantage over Khamenei in terms of personal popularity, especially among the young.

Speaking at Tehran University before thousands of students and senior officials, with the exception of Khatami, Khamenei's speech seemed to be an attempt to reassert his authority over the government and to nip burgeoning speculation in and outside Iran that Tehran's re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Washington is becoming an inevitability.

"Negotiations or normalization of relations with the United States would bring no benefits to the Iranian nation, and the results would be harmful to Iran," Khamenei declared.

He accused the Western news media of "spreading rumors."

"They want to suggest that the Islamic republic has surrendered, that the arrogance [the West] has defeated the Islamic pole in the world," Khamenei said.

He also said it was "unfortunate" that some of the Iranian media are "following the same policy line as the sworn enemies of the Islamic revolution" in favor of relations.

It was Khamenei's first public commentary on Khatami's Jan. 7 overture to the American public, made during an interview with Cable News Network.

Khamenei did not attack Khatami head-on. He said he had listened to Khatami's performance carefully. He called it "an excellent talk" that was "rationally and realistically presented." But he said it was being deliberately misinterpreted, and, "as a leader, I have the responsibility to disclose what is true to the nation."

Khamenei said it would be a betrayal for Iran to resume diplomatic ties now. "The American regime is the enemy of [Iran's] Islamic government and our revolution. It is the enemy of your revolution, your Islam and your resistance to American bullying," he told the students, who interrupted him with chants of "God is great!" and "Death to America!"

He also admonished Americans: "You complain about us calling you the 'Great Satan' while you do satanic acts. Don't do satanic acts, and we won't call you the 'Great Satan.' "

Pub Date: 1/17/98

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