Khatami calls for faith and freedom

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The Independent Online

He was a modest, moderate man. How, one asked oneself through President Mohammad Khatami's press conference, could Arab presidents hope to match this man in scholarship and learning?

The thoughtful, divinity-laden elected leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran said he feared the Americans would come to despair over their occupation of Iraq.

He spoke of US wealth and power and how it could be used for the benefit of the world – there was nothing "anti-American" in his speech – and he insisted that faith and freedom had to go together.

The Americans wanted to focus on Mr Khatami's response to the suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia. The attack "by any person or party and for whatever goal, is condemned", he said. He talked a lot about 11 September 2001. "A crime, a disaster, it cannot be justified," he said. Such aggression provides "a pretext for those who want to impose wars on peoples". All well and good. Mention those who "want to impose wars" and you are talking of Israel. And the moment journalists ask about "weapons of mass destruction" here, they are reminded of Israeli weapons of mass destruction in the Negev desert. Why the double standards in the Middle East, Mr Khatami wanted to know? And, as always, there was no reply.

Yes, the talks continued between Iranians and Americans at Geneva, he said.

And when The Independent asked Mr Khatami why America invaded Iraq, he paused for several seconds before replying – not without some sarcasm – that "I am not President Bush. I think that you have made a mistake. You should ask this question of President Bush."

"Terrorism" was the word he used about Iran's opponents in Iraq. Weren't the Americans supposed to be against this phenomenon? So it was straightforward. There should be no "provocations" in the Middle East – for which read no Hizbollah attacks on Israel in the near future – and no more US "humiliation" of the UN, the EU, Russia, China.

"Major developments have taken place in the world," Mr Khatami kept saying. Iran had suffered. Palestine had suffered. Lebanon had suffered, Iraq had suffered. Was President Bush listening? Or was that too much to hope for when Iran was one of the triple pillars of the "axis of evil"?