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Byline: Elaine Sciolino The New York Times

President Mohammed Khatami of Iran proposed cultural exchanges Wednesday as a way to break down years of mistrust between his country and the United States, but ruled out a government-to-government dialogue, saying there was no need for political ties with Washington.

In a 45-minute interview with the Cable News Network, which was broadcast in its entirety, the 54-year-old cleric was at times warm and conciliatory, repeating his belief that the world had much to learn from the West, and at times harsh and condemnatory of America's past treatment of his country.

He seemed to be steering a difficult, even tortured agenda, struggling to create a new way of talking to the United States while protecting himself from a domestic backlash by not going too far, too fast in strengthening the rule of law and expanding individual freedoms.

In Washington, the State Department responded cautiously to the remarks, repeating Washington's insistence that any dialogue must occur between the two governments.

Khatami, appearing relaxed and smiling broadly, praised America's great civilization as worthy of respect, calling the landing of the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock in the name of religious freedom an event ``revered by all Americans'' and describing Abraham Lincoln as the most famous of American ``martyrs'' who gave their lives for freedom and dignity.

But he also attacked American foreign policy toward Iran over the past half century, reciting a long list of grievances.

``Nothing should prevent dialogue and understanding between two nations, especially between their scholars and thinkers,'' he said in response to a question about whether there could be a dialogue with the American government. ``Right now I recommend the exchange of professors, scholars, authors, journalists and tourists.''

Khatami's interviewer, Christiane Amanpour, did not ask about the apparent contradiction between the initiation of cultural exchanges and Iran's refusal to rescind a decree that British novelist Salman Rushdie had insulted the prophet Mohammed in one of his novels and should be put to death.

In the dynamic political atmosphere in Iran today, it is unclear whether Khatami's praise of American culture and his modest proposal for cultural exchanges are part of a larger long-term strategy for a more substantive improvement in relations with the United States. The United States and the Soviet Union enjoyed cultural exchanges throughout the Cold War but they did little to warm the atmosphere.

The idea of cultural exchanges is unlikely to elicit serious criticism by his opponents, even though they believe that Iran's revolution must be protected from the corrupting influences of the West, particularly the United States.

And even while he made tentative overtures to the people of the United States, Khatami made clear that American behavior toward Iran has damaged his country and fueled suspicion and mistrust.

``We feel no need for ties with the United States, especially as the modern world is so diverse and plural that we can reach our objectives without any United States assistance,'' he said.

Khatami also repeated Iran's long-held opposition to the Arab-Israeli peace effort, criticizing the United States for allowing certain foreign policy decisions to be ``made in Tel Aviv and not in Washington'' and branding Israel ``the racist terrorist regime.''

Khatami's interview, his first with a foreign news organization since his landslide election victory last May, stemmed from an announcement he made last month that he would soon speak directly to the American people.

In that news conference, he called for a ``thoughtful dialogue'' with the people of the United States, prompting a positive response from President Clinton that he would like nothing more, as well as speculation in both the United States and Iran that two decades of hostility between the countries might begin to crumble.

Despite a desire in some quarters in Iran for improved relations with the United States, the president's remarks were followed by angry reactions in many Iranian newspapers that the president had no right to decide on his own whether to initiate an official dialogue with the United States government.

And Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made clear in a prayer sermon Friday that reports that Iran was moving toward rapprochement with the United States were mere ``propaganda.''

Despite his stated intention to reach out to the American people, his presentation seemed more aimed at an Iranian audience. He also might have misread American television viewers, who are even less aware of Iranian history than they are of their own and might have missed many, if not all, of his historical references.

Included in the American ``flawed policy of domination'' of Iran, Khatami said, were: the 1953 coup orchestrated by the Central Intelligence Agency that overthrew the prime minister and reinstalled the monarchy; the negative attitude of the United States toward Iran's revolution; the appropriation by Congress of millions of dollars for a covert program to destabilize the Iranian government; and a campaign to hurt Iran economically, both with unilateral sanctions and legislation requiring the sanctioning of foreign companies that invest heavily in Iran's oil and gas industry.

A philosopher as well as a religious scholar who reads and speaks German and Arabic, reads English, and speaks some English, Khatami at one point cited the 19th century French sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville's's classic, ``Democracy in America,'' which, he said, ``I am sure most Americans have read.''

Asked whether the seizure of the American Embassy in 1979 was a mistake, Khatami expressed regret that the ``feelings of the great American people have been hurt.'' But he added that the feelings of the Iranian people had been hurt as well by humiliation at the hands of the United States.

Although the taking of Americans as hostages had to be understood in the historical revolutionary context, he said, the situation in Iran is now stable enough that the people fully adhere to all norms of conduct.


2 Photos

PHOTO (1 -- color) CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour speaks with Iranian President Mohammed Khatami in a 45-minute interview Wednesday.

Associated Press

(2 -- color) KHATAMI
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 8, 1998

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