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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Dialogue and negotiation are the only ways to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue, but first "we have to eliminate the language of threat," said former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami on Thursday, amid a two-week visit to the U.S.
Iran's nuclear program, which began during Khatami's tenure, is aimed solely at peaceful purposes, not nuclear weapons, he said, reiterating the stance held by the Islamic republic since its program came under international scrutiny.
"Building nuclear technology is very different from building nuclear weapons," Khatami told reporters during an appearance at Washington's National Cathedral. Nuclear technology, he said, "could be very helpful and beneficial to humankind."
Iran is a signer of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Khatami said ensures that member nations have the right to develop peaceful nuclear technology. (Watch why Khatami believes Iran is entitled to nuclear technology -- 11:15)
"At the present time, the [International Atomic Energy Agency] has not found any evidence that Iran has not pursued a peaceful nuclear program," Khatami said. "On the contrary, there are three states in our region which possess nuclear weapons. At least, there are 200 nuclear warheads in Israel, and fewer than those exist in India and Pakistan. None of these are members to the NPT and none of them are under any safeguard."
Those states should join the NPT, he said. With safeguards, "we could prevent other states from pursuing and acquiring these capabilities," Khatami said.
Dialogue should be the primary means of settling differences over Iran's nuclear program, and the details -- including whether the Islamic republic should suspend its nuclear activities -- can be sorted out later, he said.
"I believe that's the best recourse, to talk and negotiate," Khatami said.
China, Russia and France have all indicated their willingness to talk with Iran about its nuclear program without preconditions, he said.
Later Thursday, a couple hundred protesters gathered outside the National Cathedral, where Khatami was delivering a speech on religion. The protesters carried signs and banners with slogans such as, "No dialogue, no war, only regime change" and "Free all political prisoners in Iran."
Khatami is not meeting with any U.S. officials during his visit. The U.S. has no diplomatic relations with Iran, and Khatami is the highest-ranking Iranian official to visit the U.S. since the 1979 revolution that propelled the Islamic government to power.
If Khatami were granted an audience with U.S. officials, he would tell them "we have to eliminate the language of threat" and that violence and threats of violence "will increase and exacerbate the problem," Khatami said. (Watch Khatami explain how a rise in terrorism is linked to U.S. policy in the Middle East -- 2:39)
Road to democracy
Iran is making progress on the road to democracy, but it should not be compared to nations that are farther down that road, he said.
"What exists and has existed in Iran for many years is a tradition of coexistence and tolerance," he said. "What exists at the international level, unfortunately, is based on intolerance."
"I believe that within the standards of the Western world, American standards, we are doing a lot better than some other countries that exist in the region," he added.
Khatami conceded that he has faced criticism for his visit not only from Americans -- including Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who said he would expend no state resources on Khatami's protection -- but also from members of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's administration.
A Jewish human rights group also collected 14,000 signatures on a petition opposing the U.S. decision to grant Khatami a visa.
"If you want to accept to live in a democratic state and a democratic society, you have to tolerate the voices of dissent," he said. "Democracy is a process, not a project."
Addressing accusations that Iran engages in human rights violations, Khatami acknowledged that Iran is not perfect, but he also pointed out that the U.S., too, faces similar accusations for its operations at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the Guantanamo Bay prison camp in Cuba.
"First, let's condemn the violation of human rights, wherever it takes place," he said.
Khatami also said that he "absolutely" does not believe that Jews are different from other humans, but some Christians and Jews consider themselves superior to others and commit crimes in the name of religion, much like Muslim extremists.
On Sunday, a day before the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Khatami is scheduled to visit Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he will address the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
The State Department will provide security for Khatami because it is the "smart and prudent thing to do," said spokesman Sean McCormack.
Mohammad Khatami on Iran nukes: "I believe that's the best recourse, to talk and negotiate."
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