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Iran: Expatriates In U.S. Welcome Offer To Return, But Remain Hesitant

While attending the UN summit in New York this week, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami met with Iranian expatriates. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports the audience welcomed his offer of return, but many remain hesitant to do so.

Prague, 7 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Iran's President Mohammad Khatami came to New York this week to attend the UN summit of world leaders. But his first stop in the city was to meet with Iranian-Americans.

The meeting was the second between the president and members of the Iranian community in the United States, which is estimated at about 1 million. He previously met with expatriates when he made a landmark trip to New York two years ago as the first head of state of the Islamic Republic to travel to the UN.

Many of the expatriates in the United States fled Iran in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and were the members of the country's former business and intellectual elite. More than 400 came on Monday (Sept 4) to hear Khatami make the case that they can now safely return home with their capital.

The audience attended by invitation of the Islamic Republic's representative in New York and listened attentively as Khatami covered subjects ranging from Iranian economic and political issues to how he regards the United States.

The president expressed concern about Iran's brain drain and said the country's ailing economy cannot go forward without good technology, science, and management. He called on the expatriates not to forget their roots or that "you are and remain Iranians."

Khatami also reiterated his support for the rule of law in Iran, where hard-liners and reformists remain locked in a battle over the extent of individual freedom permissible in an Islamic state. In an apparent reference to that conflict, which has seen hard-line vigilantes violently attack reformists, he said he recognizes the right of citizens to legally question the constitution.

"One can criticize the constitutional law, one can have a different opinion, one can have a scientific discussion and that is alright [because] the constitutional law is a man-made rule and it could be reconstructed and changed."

Khatami continued:

"I prefer a law-based criticism of the government to unlawful support of it."

He also told the audience that dangers to Iran today include all-or-nothing demands:

"There are two dangers that threaten us. One is anarchy and the other is not knowing what to do, which will push the society toward another suppression and suffocating dictatorship, and both mean losing all that we have gained. You cannot demand all-or-nothing. [Instead,] get what you can and gain more by progress and patience."

Turning to foreign policy, Khatami expressed optimism over positive gestures by Washington toward Iran in March. They included lifting an import ban on Iranian caviar and an acknowledgement that the U.S. played a significant role in orchestrating a 1953 coup to overthrow a popular Iranian leader.

But Khatami asked if those gestures mean that the Americans are ready to submit to "all the necessities" of such an acknowledgement. If so, he said, a great stride has been taken to remove the misunderstandings between the two states.

Finally, in an endorsement for religious freedom in Iran, he thanked members of religious minorities for attending the meeting.

RFE/RL correspondent Behnam Nateghi attended the event on Monday and asked numerous members of the audience what they thought of Khatami's speech.

One attendee, Badi'e Badiolzamani, praised Khatami's warm remarks but said they did not sufficiently address Iran's economic ills.

"For the first time, we have heard nice things from someone at the peak of power. We hope that this will come closer to action. Financial difficulties and unemployment in Iran are tremendous and threaten Iran with the danger of explosion. But that was not properly addressed here today."

Akbar Bonakdar-Pour, an invitee who spoke at the event, expressed concern over whether Khatami can bridge the wide gulf between reformists and conservatives in Iran:

"I hope he will succeed in constructing a common foundation among the different political opinions in Iran. His policy has always been two steps forward and one step backward, and that is the enigma of his success."

Another attendee, Heshmatollah Reyazi, said he regards Iran as still far from democratic.

"There is still a continuation of dictatorship in the name of religion."

Still another member of the audience, Houshang Amir-Ahmadi, felt Khatami was too radical in his remarks about the United States, but said that may reflect the president's own delicate political position.

"Mr. Khatami was more radical this time than in the past. But considering his position and the fact that he is here [in the United States], maybe he thought that he had to speak a little harsher."

The Iranian president's meeting with the expatriates came just after reformists in Iran's parliament last week submitted a bill that would grant amnesty to Iranians who fled the country because of anti-government activities or ties to outlawed political parties. The bill excludes those with proven involvement in armed struggle against the state.

In their campaign for election early this year, reformists now in the parliament made the issue of preparing legal grounds for Iranians abroad to have full legal security for their return home one of their priorities.

(Azam Gorgin contributed to this report).