Former Iranian president visits US

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He came, he saw and if he did not conquer, he most certainly spoke. And in a subtle way, this week's visit to the US by Mohammed Khatami, Iran's president from 1997 to 2005, may just have modified how the US perceives its great emerging rival in the 'war on terror' and the maelstrom of the Middle East.

On the face of it, of course, his trip changes nothing in the tortured relationship between Washington and the country Mr Bush famously labelled a founder member of the 'axis of evil.' True, the State Department has provided an official security detail. But despite the fact that Khatami is the highest ranking visitor from Tehran to the US since the hostage crisis of 1979, he is meeting no member of the current administration (while talks with former president Jimmy Carter failed to be confirmed). And, one might ask, why should he? Khatami after all is today merely a mid-level Shi'ite cleric. His influence at home is questionable at best.

Moreover in ten days time his five-city US tour will have been utterly eclipsed by the appearance before the United Nations of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, the current President and demon-figure embodiment of all that America holds against Iran – its enmity towards Israel and its alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons.

But Khatami's presence here does send a quiet message, that all contacts have not been severed. He has after all been allowed a visa – just as the UN Security Council, at America's urging, prepares to discuss sanctions against Iran that include curbs on foreign travel by leading members of the regime.

Some even detect a 'good-cop, bad-cop' routine. Ahmedinejad is obviously the latter, vehemently asserting Iran's right to nuclear energy, and demanding respect for its emerging status in the Middle East.

His predecessor on the other hand has this week exuded nothing but sweet reason. He has been conciliatory, almost gentle. Mr Ahmedinejad will address the world from the rostrum of the UN General Assembly, but Mr Khatami has preached his message of conciliation at temples of American history.

He gave an address at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville founded by Thomas Jefferson, a father of the Republic. He held a press conference at the great limestone cathedral that sits astride Washington's skyline, urging dialogue between the Muslim, Jewish and Christian faiths. Tomorrow – the very eve of the fifth anniversary of 9/11 - he will make an appearance at Harvard University.

There has of course been controversy. Demonstrators, firmly corralled by police, protested opposite the National Cathedral, waving pictures of Reza Pahlavi - exile son of the Shah ousted 27 years ago - and banners demanding Freedom for the Iranian people. "Shame on You," they shouted at the 1,200 invitees, as they queued outside to go through security before entering the cathedral.

Human rights groups have pointed out that abuses were rife in Iran under the supposedly moderate Khatami, while Jewish organisations demanded in vain that the event be cancelled.

In Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, the governor, let it loudly be known that he has ordered all state agencies to refuse all assistance whatsoever when Khatami is in Harvard and Boston this weekend. It should be noted that Mr Romney is likely to seek Republican Presidential nomination in 2008. Being 'tough on Iran' will not hurt his prospects.

But on Thursday evening here, the fuss seemed almost nonsensical, as the black-turbaned figure delivered his message of peace from the lecturn of the National Cathedral, flanked by the Right Reverend John Bryson Chane, Episcopal Bishop of Washington.

Earlier, he held a press conference in the building's south-east transept. "Jesus is the prophet of kindness and peace," he said, praising each of the three religions in turn. "Muhammed is the prophet of ethics, morality and grace. Moses is the prophet of dialogue and exchange." Behind him was a banner with words taken from Isaiah, "My House shall be called the house of prayer for all people." Hardly the stuff of an impending clash of civilizations