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Khatami touts progress in Iran, both past, present

Says he's satisfied with work in office

Former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami sat down yesterday for an interview with the Globe.
Former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami sat down yesterday for an interview with the Globe. (T.S. Amarasiriwardena/ Staff)

CAMBRIDGE -- Former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami said yesterday that he was satisfied with the progress he made toward expanding freedom in Iran during his eight years at the helm --and he asserted that Iran is still heading toward democracy.

``We would have hoped to achieve much more progress," he said in an interview. ``Within the available resources and constraints we had, I was satisfied. Of course, there are always concerns."

Khatami, who served as Iran's president from 1997 to 2005, took office promising political reforms but has been widely criticized for failing to do more to stop brutal crackdowns on thousands of student protesters, writers, and activists who initially supported him.

Democracy activists inside Iran experienced a brief era of greater freedom under Khatami, but then suffered from arrests and beatings by organs controlled by Iran's senior Islamic clerics who have final say over government policy. The repression widened under Khatami's hard-line successor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Khatami is the most prominent Iranian dignitary to tour the United States since the two countries cut off relations in 1979. His five-city tour, which included a speech at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government on Sunday as well as private functions yesterday at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard's Faculty Club, has been praised by those who want greater dialogue between the United States and Iran and condemned by those who say Khatami is no different than his hard-line rivals.

Khatami acknowledged yesterday that many Iranians wrote to him in vain seeking protection from prison sentences and abuse. But he blamed ``other institutions" inside the Iranian government.

``Of course some people have written . . .to me demanding certain recourse even though some of them have gone through the judicial process," he said. ``Many of them feel they have been unjustly treated. Some of them have been mistreated. I believe nobody would probably claim the executive branch mistreated them during those years."

But he described what he called lasting achievements during his time in office, including ``the development of civil institutions, expansion of free and independent media, [and] the birth and formation of political parties."

``I managed to make great progress," he said, citing what he said was an increase in the number of university students and the number of women in managerial positions.

But Khatami warned that US efforts to promote democracy in Iran would be treated with suspicion in a region that has seen the United States befriend autocratic regimes, a reference to countries such as Saudi Arabia, which has been subjected to far less US pressure to democratize than Iran. ``Democracy is not something that you can impose," he said.

Khatami urged the United States to set a timeline for withdrawing from Iraq, saying that ``indefinite occupation" will not stabilize the country. He said the US should seek the help of Iraq's neighbors, including Iran and Syria, to consolidate the chaotic government in Baghdad. He rejected US accusations that Iran is supporting militias that fuel the sectarian violence in the country.

``Security in Iraq first and foremost would benefit Iran, and this is our foremost wish," he said.

Asked whether he wished he had done more to reestablish ties with the United States during his presidency, he said that he and President Clinton took steps towards better relations.

But he said that some policies under Clinton such as the passage of the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, which gives the US the right to fine foreign companies who invest in Iran's oil infrastructure, made it harder to convince skeptics inside Iran that friendship is possible with the United States.

The inner circle traveling with Khatami said he was not very concerned about the that Governor Mitt Romney called him a ``terrorist" and forbade the State Police from protecting him. during his Bay State visit. Despite all the controversy, Khatami said he enjoyed his tour of the United States, which he called ``a great country."

Excerpts from the Globe's interview with former Iranian President Khatami

Question 1: You have been in here 10 do you see the state of relations between the two countries?
Listen to Khatami's answer

Question 2: How do you view your legacy when you look back? You were someone who talked a lot about reforms. Do you feel you made progress?
Listen to Khatami's answer

Question 3: I have talked to some people in the last few days including a few who were at the speech last night who have said that they have written to you seeking protections while they were in Iran. It seems like you may have gotten many letters from these types of people... what you would say to them …
Listen to Khatami's answer

Question 4: Last night you spoke of democracy as inevitable... what advice would you give to those who would like to see it come quickly in Iran… is there anything they can really do? Or is it wasted time?
Listen to Khatami's answer

Question 5: Is there anything you wish you had done during his presidency parallel to Clinton's to improve ties?
Listen to Khatami's answer

Question 6: Your major theme has been a dialogue of civilizations between countries and faiths and I'm wondering if you attempted to form a dialogue of civilizations [in Iran]?
Listen to Khatami's answer

(Audio by T.S. Amarasiriwardena/ staff)
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