Patrick Goodenough | International Editor | Friday, September 1, 2006
Khatami's visit, billed as a private one built around his participation at a U.N. "dialogue of civilizations" conference, comes at a time the U.S. and fellow permanent Security Council members are mulling sanctions against Tehran over its nuclear activities.
Those promoting the visit -- including the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the National Cathedral in Washington -- are emphasizing his allegedly reformist inclinations.
CAIR said in a statement that during his 1997-2005 presidency, "Khatami sought increased freedom of the press, political reform and improved inter-cultural relations." CAIR hosts Khatami at an event in the nation's capital on Sept. 8.
The National Cathedral, which hosts Khatami one day earlier, says the former president "is credited with the promotion of the rule of law, democracy and the inclusion of all Iranians in the political decision-making process."
Head of the Cathedral's Center for Global Justice and Reconciliation, Canon John Peterson said Khatami "intends to speak on the role the three Abrahamic faiths can play in shaping peace throughout the world," while Dean Samuel Lloyd III said Khatami was "regarded as a man of peace and moderation."
Critics, however, have offered a range of reasons why the U.S. should not have provided Khatami with a visa to enable him to visit parts of the country outside of New York City.
During his tenure, they said in a symposium convened by National Review Online (NRO), the State Department designated Iran as the world's leading sponsor of state terrorism, and President Bush named Iran -- together with North Korea and Ba'athist Iraq -- as part of an "axis of evil."
Iran under Khatami also violated religious freedoms, clamped down on the media and pro-democracy campaigners, and covertly pursued the nuclear program now exercising the international community.
Khatami publicly supported -- and continues to support -- Hizballah and Hamas, terrorist groups committed to the destruction of Israel.
Khatami "wasn't exactly AWOL during the buildup of Iran's nuclear program," said Hudson Institute Senior Fellow Anne Bayefsky, who added that granting him a visa would undercut demands for sanctions against Iran.
"If we aren't prepared to isolate Iran, why should anyone else?" she asked.
"Although widely portrayed as a lovable liberal in the Western media, Khatami fully shares the long-term goals of Ayatollah Khomeini's radical revolution," said Heritage Foundation Research Fellow James Phillips.
"There were only superficial changes during the years of the Smiling Mullah's presidency," said Keith Roderick of Christian Solidarity International. "Khatami ruled over the largest repression of the media and the student democratic movement in the Iranian Islamic Republic's history."
"Khatami's reality is the inverse of his image," said American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Rubin. "To Western audiences, he speaks of tolerance; in Persian, he urges Iranians to mobilize for war."
Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) said the U.S. was "offering free speech to a man whose government was called 'the greatest predator of the free press in the Middle East' by Reporters Without Frontiers."
Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at Freedom House, noted that during Khatami's presidency, the U.S. government had designated Iran as a "country of particular concern" for religious persecution.
'Best hope for dialogue'
Although some reports assert that Khatami no longer holds an official position in Iran, he is in fact a senior member of Iran's Assembly of Experts, a body of 85 top clerics whose functions include nominating and supervising the country's "Supreme Leader."
Former President Carter is reported to have agreed in principle to meet with Khatami during his visit, although there was no immediate confirmation that the Iranian will accept the invitation.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Carter was "a private citizen, and he is free to meet with whomever he pleases."
Some media organizations are suggesting that a Carter-Khatami meeting could have significant ramifications, possibly even breaking the logjam over the nuclear issue.
"It is a meeting that could avert a clash of civilizations," said the London Independent, while The Times headlined its story: "Jimmy Carter offers best hope of dialogue with the old enemy."
The Financial Times called the trip "ground-breaking" but worried that prospects for a thaw in bilateral relations looked bleak -- because the Bush administration wasn't prepared to speak to him.
Carter was president during the 1979 Islamic revolution and the subsequent 444-day U.S. Embassy hostage crisis. He presided over an abortive rescue attempt in April 1980 that cost the lives of eight U.S. servicemen when a helicopter crashed in the Iranian desert.
Iran eventually let the last hostages go the day Carter left the White House in January 1981.
North Korean diplomacy
Since his presidency, Carter has promoted conflict resolution, human rights and humanitarian causes. He has frequently offered his services as a mediator, while urging -- and sometimes himself making -- contact with hostile regimes, including those in Iran, North Korea, Cuba and Syria.
In 1994, he visited Pyongyang as an unofficial envoy in a bid to defuse a crisis over Kim Jong-il's threats to withdraw from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and stop cooperating with the U.N. over his nuclear program.
Carter's private diplomacy resulted in the signing of a deal called the "Agreed Framework" between Kim and the Clinton administration, under which North Korea pledged to freeze its nuclear program in return for U.S. fuel aid and the provision by the U.S. and its allies of alternative, civilian reactors for power supply purposes.
At the time, former Secretary of State James Baker called the agreement "a mistake that has made stability on the Korean peninsula less, not more, likely."
The deal was also criticized by others, including the Center for Security Policy, which said it invited "deadly, aggressive behavior around the globe."
The Washington-based think tank had also opposed Carter's trip, arguing that it was merely buying North Korea more time.
In Oct. 2002, the Agreed Framework began to unravel after it emerged that North Korea had been cheating for years by running a covert uranium-enrichment program.
Within weeks, left-wing organizations in South Korea critical of the Bush administration were appealing to Carter to help resolve the new crisis and decrease tensions on the peninsula.
A full year later, with the standoff with North Korea far from resolved, Carter said in an op-ed that his mission to Pyongyang had had a "satisfactory" conclusion. The agreement had broken down, he said, because both sides failed to meet all of their commitments. Carter urged both the U.S. and North Korea to compromise.
In 2004, John Bolton -- currently U.S. ambassador to the U.N. but at the time Washington's top arms control official -- said the Bush administration would not repeat its predecessor's mistake of rewarding North Korea in return for temporarily freezing a nuclear weapons program
"The U.S. government tried the bilateral route, and it failed -- it was called the Agreed Framework of 1994," he said in a speech in Seoul.
"Contrary to what critics of the Bush administration suggest, the Agreed Framework did not resolve the issue, it simply postponed it -- and ultimately made it worse."
The U.S. would "not be fooled again," Bolton said.
Taking part in this week's NRO symposium, Iranian journalist and analyst Amir Taheri said that a Carter-Khatami meeting would not be a bad thing.
"By begging to meet the head of one of the most repressive regimes in the world, Carter would simply show whose side he is on," he said.
"Having refused to meet Iranian dissidents and rejected repeated calls for statements in support of Iranian trade unionists, student leaders, persecuted minorities and political prisoners, Carter is precisely the person who should hang around with people like Khatami."
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