Former Iranian president addresses UVA amid tight security
In his 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush said, "Iran aggressively pursues these weapons [of mass destruction] and exports terror, while an unelected few repress the Iranian people's hope for freedom," and called the Iranian government one-third of "an axis of evil."
Over four years later, the man who was leading Iran at the time, former president Muhammad Khatami, lectured in the Dome Room of the Rotunda at the University of Virginia to approximately 140 invited guests, and, at least for today, positioned himself to sound more like Jimmy Carter than the Ayatollah Khomeini.
The theme of Khatami's speech was that an open dialogue among the people of the world will lead to democracy and world peace. "Not only should we seek the liberation of humankind in the East and the West from this inferno of violence, and war, and terror," he said, "but also, efforts must be aimed at liberating knowledge and religion from the clutches of intolerant, power-hungry politicians, and utilize the two as spiritual tools for containing powers with violent tendencies."
Khatami is the highest-ranking Iranian official to visit the United States since radical Muslims captured the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held Americans hostage for 444 days. Speaking in Farsi and through an interpreter for just under an hour, Khatami denounced those who "alter the message of love and peace asserted by religions and cultures of the world in order to justify their devastating goals." And he suggested that category includes not only Al-Qaeda, but also the Bush administration.
"Violence," he said, "is an outcome of a particular logic, which is heard today louder than any other time from the camps of all aggressors despite their differing ideologies. The rationale of 'us and them' hinges on a negation of the other, which leads to statements like 'whoever is not with us, is against us." He added, "This is a horrifying logic that flouts the logic of all prophets of God, all the great religions and reformers have preached."
That doesn't mean he disagrees with the Bush administration's foreign policy altogether. Responding to a written question from a student, Khatami said that, although he disagreed with the means, the U.S. was right to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq, calling him "one of the two greatest forces of backwardness in the region." While he added that "U.S. occupation must come to an end so there can be peace," he also said, "You can't leave Iraq in the hands of the insurgents and the terrorists. If the U.S. were to leave tomorrow, I would say no, don't do it."
The Q&A session also asked Khatami to explain his and Iran's support of Hezbollah, the organization that led the most recent fighting in Lebanon against Israel and a group that the U.S. officially regards as composed of terrorists.
"They have committed no act of terrorism in the last 10 years," he said. "In fact, we have counseled Hezbollah to become part of a civil society in Lebanon, and they have been doing that work leading to democracy in Lebanon."
Among those who have expressed outrage over the State Department's granting Khatami a travel visa– let alone his speaking at UVA– is Senator George Allen. In an August 31 letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Allen wrote, "Granting this travel visa gives support to the current Iranian strategy of stalling action while it builds its nuclear capabilities and dividing the tentative coalition of states opposing Iran’s nuclear weapons program."
Judging from the meager size of the protest outside the Rotunda, not many share Allen's concern over Khatami's visit. Fourth-year Mike Wain, a member of a group called "Students Defending Democracy," was one of about five students handing out flyers depicting a hanging and a battered student protester. It read, "Khatami's Iran...where minorities and their rights are silenced" and "Khatami can speak freely in the Rotunda...but Iranian students weren't that lucky when he was president."
"I don't see why, at a time we're maximizing pressure on Iran to comply with the U.N., we're letting a dictator in here spewing propaganda," Wain says. "It makes no sense. Instead, we should be hearing from real Iranian reformers."
Security was tight at the event, and only 140 invited guests were allowed in the Dome Room; the general public had to watch the speech on closed-circuit TV in Newcomb Hall. Law enforcement officials surrounded the Rotunda, checking IDs of anyone walking in the direction of the building. Two snipers were visible atop the Rotunda.
After his remarks, Khatami left for Washington, DC where he is scheduled to speak at the National Cathedral tonight.
But Charlottesville hasn't seen the last of the former Iranian president. Khatami will make a special trip from Washington back to Charlottesville on Saturday to tour Monticello.
"We're closing at 9:30am and then reopening at 12:30pm for President Khatami's private house tour led by [Thomas Jefferson Foundation President] Dr. [Daniel] Jordan and a private lunch," says Monticello spokesperson Wayne Mogielnicki.
How are Monticello officials preparing for the heightened security?
"Security is a lot tighter than it was for the President of Ireland when she visited a few months ago," Mogielnicki says, "but we rely on federal, state, and local authorities to tell us what we need to do."
After that, Khatami is scheduled to travel back to Washington and then on to Boston, where he will deliver an address at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government on Sunday, the eve of the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.