By Reyhaneh Fathieh
Sept. 8, 2006 -- Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami urged a “dialogue among civilizations” on Thursday as he addressed an audience of 140 invited students and guests in the Dome Room of the Rotunda.
Khatami’s talk, sponsored by the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, came a week after the expiration of the U.N. Security Council’s Aug. 31 deadline for Iran to halt its program of nuclear enrichment. Khatami’s successor, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has repeatedly denounced the U.S. as a “bully,” contending that negotiation is not genuine if forfeiting nuclear energy is a precondition.
Khatami expressed similar sentiments.
“It is never emphasized what our President has told Mr. Bush: that the time has come for leaving aside hegemonic tone and the tone of power and sit in a proper dialogue with the equality of nations,” he said.
He suggested that the current structure of the United Nations and its Security Council, dominated by five permanent members, was unfair.
“[The] present paradigm regards the interests and values of a select group of elites as the interests and values of the entire world even if at times it clashes with it,” he said.
Khatami, regarded as a moderate in the context of Iranian politics, predicted a “closed cycle of mutual violence” perpetuated by “oppression from one side and terrorism from another,” if Bush’s rationale of “whoever is not with us, is against us” continues to dominate relations between the United States and Iran.
Though Khatami preached a message of universal peace, religious commonality and a unified culture of morality, a half-dozen U.Va. students protested quietly against his talk outside the Rotunda, handing out anti-Khatami leaflets that highlighted human rights abuses during his presidency.
With capacity in the Dome Room limited to 140 people, the speech was broadcast to the Newcomb Hall Theater and Newcomb Hall’s South Meeting Room, drawing nearly 200 additional viewers.
Charlottesville is one of five cities Khatami is expected to visit in the United States. Plans include a return visit to Charlottesville on Saturday for a private tour of Monticello.
Defining security as a “global and human issue,” the former president criticized U.S. foreign policy as unilateralist. Khatami, who served two terms from 1997 to 2005 and was in office when the United States invaded Iraq, told of his proposal for the United States to work with Iraq’s neighbors and the Security Council to devise a solution for the Iraqi problem — a proposal that he said the United States government had refused.
“The U.S. was able to remove [Iran’s] greatest enemy, Saddam Hussein, but the method by which this was done is unacceptable,” Khatami said. “The result was the transference of the terrorism that was located in Afghanistan to Iraq.” Asserting that terrorism has actually increased in the region, Khatami said that terrorists and insurgents now use the U.S. invasion as an “excuse” for violence.
Khatami spoke in Farsi from a prepared text, which was translated into English in advance and read aloud in English by an aide.
A short question-and-answer period followed Khatami’s prepared remarks. Questions were solicited in advance from the guests and three were selected and presented to Khatami by Abdulaziz Sachedina, professor of religious studies, who invited him to Charlottesville and introduced him to the audience.
Khatami didn’t shy away from commenting on controversial issues, such as U.S. foreign policy in Iraq and his support for Hezbollah. He interrupted Sachedina, who was interpreting for him, several times, offering lengthy and relatively blunt responses. Khatami’s answers were preceded by disclaimers that he is “different” from the present government, and that his “opinions” should not be taken as Iran’s “official political stance.”
With due warning, Khatami continued, “If they ask me if America wants to leave [Iraq] tomorrow, I would say don’t do it.” While the United States must leave in order for peace to be established, he said a U.S. withdrawal now would leave the Iraqi government in the hands of insurgents and terrorists.
Asked to explain his support for Hezbollah, Khatami made no apologies. “Hezbollah loves Iran, Iranians love Hezbollah,” he said, adding, however, that there is no “organic connection” between Hezbollah as an organization and Iran.
Though he condemned Hezbollah’s kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers, Khatami noted that “this occurred in the context of thousands of Lebanese that are in Israeli jails.” Further, he echoed critics of Israel by labeling the response “disproportionate.”
Khatami, who is a Shiite cleric and dons a black turban as a descendant of Mohammed, was accompanied by a tight security team provided by the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security. Virginia State Police, University Police and other local police departments provided additional security.
As he exited the Rotunda, following a standing ovation, Khatami stopped and spoke briefly in Persian to a student in the audience.
Peggah Sadeghzadeh, a fourth-year government major of Persian descent, said he inquired about her nationality and her studies.
“I feel like he is so approachable, and doesn’t care about all the security,” Sadeghzadeh said. “Especially about religion, if you had a question, he would sit and talk to you.”
Reyhaneh Fathieh, a fluent speaker of Farsi, is a fourth-year in the College from Denver, Colo.