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Ex-Iranian leader blames Bush policies for terrorism

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CHICAGO, Illinois (CNN) -- U.S. foreign policy is furthering terrorism in the Muslim world, and negotiations are the only way to resolve the impasse over Iran's nuclear ambitions, former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami told CNN while on a two-week visit to the United States.

The reformist leader is widely viewed as moderate compared with new President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As president, Khatami favored stronger U.S. ties.

In an interview Sunday with CNN, Khatami said American policies have "only increased, and will only increase, extremism in our region." (Watch Khatami tie Bush's policies in the Mideast to a rise in terrorism -- 2:39)

In the interview, he also broke with his hard-line successor by saying he does not call for Israel's destruction.

But he defended Iran's support for Hezbollah, calling the Lebanon-based militant group a resistance organization. And though Hezbollah used Iranian weapons in its recent war with Israel, Khatami denied that Iran contributes to violence in the Middle East.

Asked what he would tell President Bush if he could speak with him, Khatami replied: "I would tell him that the United States, with all of its might and resources, can, side by side with the good people of the Middle East, bring about a new experience and the creation of democracy and the advancement of democracy, even though the way to democracy may have been slow originating in the Mideast. With a change of the language going from threats to ... mutual understanding, the United States can have a better position in the region.

"And, quite frankly, I would tell him that the policies that the United States has chosen unfortunately have brought about the wrong sentiment toward the United States and has only increased, and will only increase, extremism in our region."

He argued that the U.S. invasion of Iraq has increased hatred for the United States in the Mideast, leading more young people to join terrorist groups.

The United States has no diplomatic relations with Iran, which Bush branded as part of the "axis of evil" in his 2002 State of the Union address, along with North Korea and Iraq, then led by Saddam Hussein.

Denies Iran wants nuclear weapons

Though no longer in the Tehran government, the former president is the highest-ranking Iranian to visit the United States since the 1979 revolution, which brought the Islamic regime to power.

Khatami has not been invited to meet with any U.S. officials but is speaking at private engagements. He is scheduled to take part in a conference of the Alliance of Civilizations at the United Nations in New York, and he has been invited to speak at the National Cathedral in Washington.

His trip comes amid a stalemate over Iran's nuclear ambitions. Tehran last week refused a U.N. deadline to stop uranium enrichment despite a threat of possible sanctions. (Full story)

Khatami stood by his government's contention that Iran is not trying to build a nuclear weapon. U.S. and European leaders argue Tehran is trying to use a nuclear energy program as a guise to build an atomic weapon.

"It has never been the policy or the mind-set of any branch of the Iranian government to pursue atomic weapons, which can be the source of vast numerous killings in the world," Khatami said.

He admitted that Iranians "are definitely worried" that the United States could lead an attack against their country and "hopeful that such a thing would not take place."

The Bush administration has said the military option cannot be taken off the table.

"Quite frankly, I think the United States has caused itself enough problems in Iraq," Khatami added.

Iran has called for further talks on the issue, but John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said Monday that Tehran will get nowhere in negotiations until it meets the U.N. demand.

"They don't want to talk about the fundamental precondition established by the Security Council and the International Atomic Energy Agency, and that is they must suspend their uranium enrichment activity," Bolton said.

Part of the concern over Iran's nuclear ambitions stems from Ahmadinejad's calls for Israel to be "wiped off the map."

"I personally never said that Israel should be wiped off the map," Khatami told CNN. "I always said and backed fair and equal peace in the region."

He declined to call for a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, instead saying, "People there have to decide."

Objections to Khatami's trip to U.S.

Some have raised objections to the former Iranian leader's visit to the United States.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Jewish human rights group based in Los Angeles, California, fought the U.S. decision to grant Khatami a visa. The center said more than 14,000 people had signed its online petition before Khatami's arrival last week.

The group cited Khatami's past remarks calling Israel "a parasite in the heart of the Muslim world" and comparing Bush to Osama bin Laden.

Asked about drawing that comparison, Khatami told CNN, "I said those who bring about violence have a lot in common," and condemned leaders "who think of themselves as superior."

Terrorism and war "have one origin, one spark, one frame of mind, and we have to keep ourselves away from this," he said.

Khatami, in the CNN interview, also called on Muslim world leaders to show "the true face of the Islamic faith," which he said stands for "peace and equality."

CNN's Zain Verjee contributed to this report.


Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami argues that the U.S. invasion of Iraq has led more young people to join terrorist groups.



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