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Iran: Reformist President Concludes Whirlwind UN Summit

  • Joe Lauria



Iran's reformist President Mohammad Khatami used the UN's Millennium Summit to hold a series of key meetings with regional leaders and fellow OPEC members. There were signs of subtle softening in the long-time animosity between Iran and the United States but Khatami downplayed impressions of a shift in relations. Correspondent Joe Lauria reports.

United Nations, 11 September 2000 RFE/RL) -- Iran's President Mohammad Khatami seized the opportunity of the world stage at the UN's Millennium Summit to hold face-to-face meetings with the leaders of more than 30 nations.

Khatami had breakfast with Chinese President Jiang Zemin, met for the first time ever with Russian President Vladimir Putin and discussed the price of oil with the Colombian president. He sat down with the leaders of Oman, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, Georgia, Pakistan, Italy, and Colombia. Khatami also met with an American Jewish organization in New York and the leader of the European Commission.

The hundreds of bilateral meetings between the leaders were the summit's most newsworthy events, but the most difficult from which to extract any concrete information. A spokesman at Iran's mission to the United Nations in New York would not provide any details of Khatami's meetings.

But at a press conference on Thursday, Khatami spoke of his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He said the two leaders spoke of the importance of "strategic relations" in order to "create stability in the region that could pave the way for both countries to marginalize external powers who aim to disintegrate the region." He did not name these powers. "Russia needs a stable Iran and Iran needs a stable Russia," Khatami said.

Khatami also said at the press briefing that democracy could come only gradually to his country and expressed concern about "extremist forces" on both sides that threaten to undermine social stability. "You cannot endanger security for the sake of freedom and you cannot endanger freedom for the sake of security," he said.

"It took many centuries and wars for democracy to come to the West," Khatami added. "You cannot compare Iran to the West today, the Iranian people are not yet ready for democracy."

He said: "The final word must be heard from the people, but they must pay a big price" to gain democracy.

Khatami said that liberal reforms he instituted had created too great expectations among the Iranian people, "expectations that the government cannot meet at the moment." He said this had created tensions from extremists on both sides, but "god willing we will be able to resolve this within the law."

The Iranian president is walking a thin line between the forces of liberalization that he has helped unleash and the conservative, religious establishment, upon whom he relies to remain in power. He has had to rein in some of these liberal forces while remaining popular with the electorate -- 80 percent of whom still support him, according to Iranian public opinion polls.

The crackdown on the reforms have led to vigilante violence and to the closure in recent months of more than 20 newspapers and magazines--publications that felt confident to appear after Khatami took power.

The president said there were three views of reform in Iran: to put aside religion and become a secular state, which the West prefers; to reject change, especially of the young in a rapidly changing world and to accept reform but within the religious traditions of Iran. He said he favored the latter view, noting that the Iranian revolution of 1979 that overthrew the Shah had ushered in the will of the people through the expression of their religious beliefs.

The Iranian president also spoke about relations with the United States, about the crisis in the Middle East and Iran's oil policy at the one-hour briefing.

Khatami said relations with Washington could improve only if the U.S. acknowledged its role in the 1953 coup that brought the Shah to power. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright mentioned the American role in a speech several months ago, but she apparently did not go far enough for the regime in Tehran.
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