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Iran Waves Conditional Olive Branch Open To Cultural Visits, But Wants More-Friendly, Less-Political U.S. Attitude

THURSDAY, JAN. 8, 1998

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami on Wednesday made one of his nation’s strongest overtures toward the United States since Iran’s Islamic revolution, inviting American scholars, artists and tourists to visit his nation to help create a “crack in the wall” of hostility dividing the two nations.

But Khatami added that “a bulky wall of mistrust” remains and is too great for the U.S.-sought, government-to-government talks to have any chance for success at this time.

Although the tone of Khatami’s speech - an instance of international diplomacy via the Cable News Network - was overwhelmingly conciliatory and respectful toward America, the Iranian president said his country is not desperate for political relations. It is prepared to wait until it sees a more friendly attitude from U.S. officials.

“We feel no need for ties with the United States, especially that the modern world is so diverse and plural that we can reach our objectives without any United States assistance,” he said. “We are carrying out our own activities and have no need for political ties with the United States.”

Khatami appeared to be choosing his words carefully, suggesting it is now a matter of when, not if, the U.S.-Iranian relations, sundered during the 1979 hostage crisis, will be resumed. That alone was a radical departure for a regime that had made “Death to America” a main motto and antiAmericanism a central tenant since its founding by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Still, Wednesday’s speech was received in guarded fashion in Washington, where State Department spokesman James P. Rubin observed: “We welcome the fact that he wants a dialogue with the American people. … But we continue to believe that the way to address the issues between us is for our two governments to talk directly.”

As for Khatami, he noted that, in U.S.-Iranian relations, “There is a great mistrust between us. If negotiations are not based on mutual respect, they will never lead to positive results. … There must first be a crack in this wall of mistrust to prepare us for a change and create an opportunity to study a new situation.

“Nothing should prevent dialogue and understanding between the two nations, especially between their scholars and thinkers. Right now, I recommend the exchange of professors, writers, scholars, artists, journalists and tourists.”

He criticized the “behavior of the American government (which) in the past, up to this date, has always exacerbated the climate of mistrust, and we have so far not detected any sign of change of behavior.”

He cited decades of American government actions that he said had angered Iranians:

The U.S.-engineered coup that brought down Iran’s government in 1953.

U.S. financial backing for the unpopular regime of the late, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.

U.S. efforts, since the 1979 Islamic revolution that overthrew the shah, to isolate Iran economically.

And a $20 million allocation by the U.S. Congress with the purpose of bringing down the Islamic government.

At the same time, Khatami came close to apologizing for the 1979 taking of 52 hostages for 444 days at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran as a revolutionary excess and denounced terrorist attacks such as those that have killed innocent civilians in Israel.

Regarding the hostage crisis, which led the United States to sever ties with Iran, Khatami said, “I do know that the feelings of the great American people have been hurt, and of course I regret it. … In the heat of the revolutionary fervor, things happen which cannot be fully contained or judged according to usual norms.”

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