NEWS- House blocker: Iranian president closes Monticello

Rare is the Saturday morning when tourists walk away from Monticello disappointed. But then, it isn't every day that a security force of dozens of federal, state, and local law enforcement officials, and a personal entourage of 18, bring Mohammad to the mountain.

That's Mohammad Khatami, the president of Iran from 1997-2005, the man in office when President Bush called the Iranian government part of "an Axis of Evil," and the highest ranking Iranian official to visit the United States since 1979, when Muslim radicals seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, holding Americans hostage for 444 days. 

After speaking at Mr. Jefferson's University of Virginia on Thursday, September 7, Khatami expressed the desire to return to Charlottesville from Washington two days later to see our third president's home. The State Department's concern for the security of the former Iranian leader required Monticello to stop taking tourists up the mountain at 9:30am and shut down all operations until 12:35pm.

Some visitors were not pleased.

"That murdering bastard," said Stan Standes of Atlanta. "They won't let Americans up there for that murdering bastard? That's the biggest bunch of crap."

"It's ridiculous," said James Mizell of Irving, Texas.

"I think it's baloney," said Ed Ricks of Douglas, Wyoming. "It seems unfair that someone from another nation should have priority over U.S. citizens, especially someone from a nation hostile to the U.S."

While a few Charlottesville media outlets reported Khatami's interest in visiting Monticello, notice of the closure had not reached many visitors. "I hadn't heard about it," said Neil Leininger of Winchester, Kentucky. "It's not like we got to read the local paper." 

As of Friday morning, there was nary a word on the Monticello website about a closure. Only by 2pm, less than 24 hours before the scheduled visit, did Monticello post a notice about a "special event" on Saturday morning. 

"We had heard rumors that President Khatami wanted to visit," says Monticello spokesperson Wayne Mogielnicki. "On Wednesday, it was 50/50, but it wasn't definite that he was coming. That limited our ability to notify people."

"We always regret not being open, but in this case it was a security imperative," says Daniel Jordan, president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. "We believe it reflected goodwill and was an example of the President [Khatami's] commitment to a dialogue among nations."

Jordan also noted that he had received only "six to eight" messages from the public disapproving of Khatami's visit, a response that he says pales in comparison to the outrage surrounding the 1990s visits of Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

In an effort to show goodwill during the shut-down, Monticello guides handed out brochures and directions to James Madison's Montpelier and James Monroe's Ash Lawn-Highland to people interested in seeing homes of other early 19th-century presidents. Additionally, they offered free tickets for house tours at a future date to visitors unable to return later on Saturday. 

That Khatami was even in the country, let alone getting a private tour of the home of one of its founding fathers, angered many, including Senator George Allen. In an August 31 letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Allen called for Khatami's visa to be revoked. 

"I question the benefit of permitting a person who headed a regime that is a leading sponsor of terrorism, permitted human rights abuses, including repression of women and religious minorities, and presided over Iran's secret nuclear program, which is now the focus of possible UN action, to travel without restriction in the United States," he wrote.

However, after having led Khatami on his guided tour through Monticello, Jordan says that the man he met did not seem like the face of terror.

"He clearly understood core Jeffersonian values," Jordan says. "He spoke strongly on the need for democratic government. He said that there was no necessary incompatibility between government and religion. He said an individual's right of self determination was divinely given. He said that a precondition for democracy was freedom of expression and of conscience."

If Khatami's appreciation for Jefferson's beliefs were enhanced by his tour of Jefferson's home, then getting turned away will have been worth it for at least one visitor.

"I'm disappointed, but I'm glad he's seeing the home of democracy," said Carol Speight of Cheyenne, Wyoming. "Maybe something will rub off on him."

Empty nest? Monticello at around 11:30am Saturday when the place usually teems with tourists


Some of the more than two dozen officials who mustered to Monticello to keep Khatami safe

In his September 7 UVA speech, former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami endorsed the ouster of Saddam Hussein and urged American forces to remain in Iraq

The dome of UVA's Rotunda served as a convenient vantage point for one security detail during the Iranian president's speech on Thursday.