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Iran's Khatami backs anti-U.S. protest

Points to 'unfounded assertions' by U.S. leaders

TEHRAN, Iran(CNN) -- Nearly two weeks after President Bush lumped Iran into an "axis of evil," the Middle Eastern country's reformist president Saturday urged Iranians to turn out in force for an upcoming anti-U.S. demonstration.

Speaking on Iranian television, President Mohammad Khatami said "the recent, unfounded assertions, which are insulting to the Iranian people," precipitated his call for all Iranians to participate in Monday's protest in Tehran.

A large turnout, the president said, would show Iranian unity in defending the country's honor and independence.

The demonstration falls on the 23rd anniversary of Iran's Islamic revolution, when Shiite Muslim fundamentalists overthrew a U.S.-backed regime led by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

In November 1979, militants supported by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the revolution's spiritual and supreme leader, took 50 Americans in the U.S. Embassy hostage.

Washington and Tehran have not had diplomatic relations since, even after the hostages were released 444 days later.

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Khomeini's successor Ayatollah Ali Khameini and his religious and military allies have kept up the tough, anti-American line.

But Khatami, many members of the nation's reform-minded parliament and many young Iranians have advocated a more pro-Western stance, with some even pushing for renewed ties with the United States.

Khatami has tried to reverse conservative policies -- such as bans on dating and Western-style parties -- create new jobs and give young people and women freedoms they have long lacked in Iran. In most cases, however, his efforts have been derailed by powerful hard-liners, led by Khameini, who have arrested scores of journalists and protesters in recent years and erased many reforms in conservative courts.

Bush's speech January 29 reignited tensions between the two long-time rivals -- and, unlike many other issues, drew similar responses from Khatami and Khameini.

In his State of the Union address, the president singled out Iran -- along with North Korea and Iraq -- for seeking out weapons of mass destruction and supporting terrorists.

Several nations, including U.S. allies France and the United Arab Emirates, criticized Bush's remarks.

Iranian officials quickly and sharply condemned the comments, calling Bush "arrogant" and "ungrateful" of Iran's help forming a post-Taliban government in Afghanistan -- even though they never backed America's military campaign in the region.

Iran also disputed claims by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that it was harboring Taliban and al Qaeda fighters who had fled from neighboring Afghanistan.

Earlier Saturday, the deputy commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guard warned on Iranian television that his forces would destroy oil fields outside Iraq if the United States threatens Iran.

Sardar Zolghadr said Iranian troops would target oil fields in the Persian Gulf, which produce much of the oil used by the United States, because his nation would not limit its defensive actions to within Iranian borders.

Khameini said Thursday that Iran would not initiate attacks on the United States, but warned any attack on Iran would spark a "resolute" response that "will make the aggressors regret their action."

-- CNN's Kasra Naji contributed to this report.




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