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Khatami suggests warmer relations with U.S.

Amanpour and Khatami

In this story:

January 7, 1998
Web posted at: 7:02 p.m. EST (0002 GMT)

TEHRAN, Iran (CNN) -- Iranian President Mohammad Khatami said Wednesday in a rare interview that Iran and the United States should create a "crack in the wall of mistrust" by exchanging writers, scholars, artists and thinkers.

"I believe all doors should now be open for such dialogue and understanding and the possibility for contact between Iranian and American citizens," Khatami told CNN's Christiane Amanpour.

A L S O :

Interview transcript
No apology from Iran, but that's OK, say some former hostages
Iran: A New Opening
Khatami's overture disappoints U.S. officials

But the president, a moderate clergyman who was elected last May despite conservative opposition, also said that Iran feels "no need for ties with the United States."

He said there are "many progressive countries that are far more advanced in their foreign policy than the United States."

CNN's Christiane Amanpour interviews Iran President Khatami
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Part 2 - 22 min. VXtreme video

He criticized the U.S. government for being "behind the times" and a "prisoner of a cold-war mentality" in attempting to "portray Islam as the new enemy. And, regrettably, they are targeting progressive Islam rather than certain regressive interpretations of Islam."

Khatami listed examples of American foreign policy which caused Iranians to feel "humiliated and oppressed." Among them were the overthrow of the Iranian government in 1953, the shooting down of an Iranian airliner in 1988 with nearly 300 people aboard by a U.S. Navy ship, and the recent allocation of $20 million by Congress to, in his words, "topple" the Iranian government.

An 'affinity' for America

But Khatami, who faces opposition from anti-American hard-liners in the government, drew a distinction between political relations and discussion between individuals.

And he spent much of the interview tracing American history and praising the foundation of an American civilization based on liberty and spirituality. He noted that Iran's Islamic revolution had followed a similar course.

"That," he said, "is why we sense an intellectual affinity with the essence of the American civilization."

Khatami several times praised "the great American people" and made it a point to separate them from American foreign policy, which he called a "flawed policy of domination."

Khatami explains the direction U.S. foreign policy should take for peaceful negotiations between the U.S. and Iran
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"In my view, peace can come to the Middle East when ..."
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"... we are not a nuclear power and do not intend to become one."
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"I feel the American politicians should ... adjust themselves to the standards of the American civilization," he said, "and at least apologize to their own people because of the approach they have adopted."

The interview is the latest step by Khatami, 55, a moderate cleric elected with a groundswell of popular support, toward rapprochement with the West.

Washington has expressed interest in resuming talks with Iran, but only if the talks involve a broader discussion of the relationship.

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.

U.S. open to dialogue

Washington has tried to isolate Iran economically and politically, a policy that Europe and other regions with strong trade links to Tehran have resisted.

In the strongest hint that U.S.-Iran relations could someday be rehabilitated, Khatami said the two countries should analyze the fragmenting of their ties.

"If someday another situation is to emerge, we must definitely consider the roots and relevant factors and try to eliminate them," said Khatami.

Since winning the presidency, Khatami has made several overtures to the West, while also taking care not to offend powerful Iranian clerics who despise that part of the world, particularly the U.S. government.

At an Islamic summit in Tehran in December, Khatami said the Muslim world needed to learn from Western civilization, particularly its scientific and technological advances.

Again last month, he signaled his openness to the United States, calling for "a thoughtful dialogue" with Americans.

State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said the United States was willing to open such a dialogue. However, he said Washington would take that opportunity to raise concerns about Iran's development of weapons of mass destruction, its support of terrorism and its opposition to the Middle East peace process.

Calls violence a lack of logic

Khatami denied, however, that his country supports terrorism "and that if I learn of any instance to such terrorism, I shall certainly deal with it." He said there are passages in the Koran forbidding violence and said "only those who lack logic engage in violence. Terrorism should be condemned in all its forms."

He did, however, distinguish between terrorism and "supporting people who fight for the liberation of their land," which he said was not terrorism.

Khatami also denied that Iran has any aspirations of being a nuclear power. "We are not a nuclear power and do not expect to become one," he said.

As for peace in the Middle East, Khatami accused the Israeli government, "a racist, terrorist regime ... that does not serve the interests of the Jewish people," with "trampling the peace process."

He said that "sober and pragmatic analysis" is needed to resolve the problem and that Iran "would contribute to an international effort for a just and lasting peace in the Middle East."

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