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Iran: Despite U.S. Pressure, Khatami Says Tehran Supports Hizballah

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami has vowed Iran's continued support for Hizballah, despite U.S. calls for a crackdown on the militant group. In the midst of official visits to Lebanon and Syria today, Khatami also is urging the U.S. to quickly withdraw its troops from Iraq. And he is warning against the imposition of a government in Baghdad that has been handpicked by the administration in Washington.

Prague, 14 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Iranian President Mohammad Khatami said differences between Tehran and Washington remain "serious and huge" on issues ranging from the postwar administration of Iraq to the right of Lebanon's Hizballah movement to exist as a political party opposing Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory.

Speaking today in Beirut before traveling to Syria, Khatami said: "What is happening in Palestine since the start of its oppression and occupation until now is the neglect of the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people. Through its military occupation and economic control, Israel has managed to continue in its policy of oppression and occupation and even expanding its control and occupation to more land in the region, as well as being the cause of a number of wars in the region."

Khatami's remarks in Beirut come as Hizballah's main backers, Syria and Iran, face increased U.S. pressure to crack down on the militant Shi'ite Muslim movement. Washington considers Hizballah a terrorist organization.

Khatami also has been using his high-profile tour of Lebanon and Syria this week as a platform to urge the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and to warn against the imposition of a U.S.-installed government there.

Speaking at a massive public rally in Beirut yesterday, Khatami called for elections that allow each Iraqi citizen the right to vote. He said Iran is ready to help with elections under a "one-person, one-vote" formula. Such a formula would clearly favor the Iranian-backed Shi'ite religious leaders in Iraq, whose followers form about 60 percent of Iraq's population.

"We must respect the choice of the Iraqi people. And we want, along with the Iraqi people, the swift participation of the public, of political parties and religious sects in forming a transitional government that will contribute to a free, sovereign and unified Iraq, based on the right of each Iraqi citizen to have a voice," Khatami said.

Khatami said Iranians had suffered much as a result of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's rule. He said he considers the removal of Hussein's regime to be a positive development for Iraqis and for the region as a whole.

"The fall of the Saddam dictatorship will give new hope to the oppressed Iraqi people and new hope to the entire region, but we must not accept that the Iraqi people fall under yet another form of oppression," Khatami said.

The moderate reformist leader also said differences with Washington remain, despite the revelation that direct talks, supervised by the United Nations, have been under way for nearly two years in Geneva between officials from both Iran and the United States.

The two countries cut formal diplomatic ties in 1979 when radical Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held dozens of hostages for more than a year.

But Iranian Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi, who has been traveling with Khatami in Beirut, said yesterday that the contacts have dealt with the issues of Afghanistan and Iraq. Abtahi insisted there have not been any talks about the restoration of bilateral ties. Khatami said today there is "nothing new" regarding Tehran's talks with U.S. envoys.

And official Iranian newspapers are reporting today that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has rejected the idea of restoring diplomatic ties with the United States. Khamenei is quoted by those newspapers as saying the restoration of full ties with Washington would signal "surrender" by Tehran.

Meanwhile, Khatami reiterated today his country will continue its support for Hizballah guerrilla fighters. When asked about increased U.S. pressure on Iran and Syria to end support for the group, Khatami responded by asking rhetorically how Washington can deprive Hizballah of its right to exist. He said the group is a legal political entity in Lebanon that has "a natural right, even a sacred national duty" to oppose the expansion of Jewish settlements on Palestinian lands occupied by Israel since the Six Day War of 1967.

Still, Khatami said Tehran has no desire to escalate tensions or create instability in the region.

In a public sign of Iran's ongoing support for Hizballah, Khatami met directly with Hizballah leader Shaykh Hassan Nasrallah in Beirut yesterday.

Nasrallah told journalists after the meeting that he and Khatami spoke about regional issues -- including U.S. pressure against Hizballah and its supporters. "As you know, Iran is also facing threats through other means, so our position is one of solidarity between Iran, Syria, Lebanon, the resistance movement and the Palestinian people, as well as the people of these nations," Nasrallah said. "We must stand united in the face of these threats, and we must stand up to these threats with responsibility and presence and not abandon our rights."

Officials in Washington believe Hizballah carried out the deadly 1983 bombing of a U.S. Marines Corps barracks and the kidnapping of Westerners during Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war.

Hizballah denies any link to those events. The group also denies it is a terrorist organization. Hizballah leaders insist their organization has evolved from a loose group of Shi'ite militants into a political institution with seats in the Lebanese parliament and an extensive social-services network.