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Khatami: Fight against terror has sparked extremism

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This is a rush FDCH transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

CHICAGO, Illinois (CNN) -- The United States has accused Iran of fueling the conflict in Iraq, and arming Hezbollah with rockets and guns in its war with Israel.

Tehran has also been blasted for its uranium enrichment program.

Iran's former president, Mohammad Khatami, says Washington is flat out wrong about Iran.

This week during a trip to the United States, he spoke with CNN Anchor Zain Verjee through a translator.

VERJEE: Thank you so much for this interview. What is your message to the American people?

KHATAMI: I also thank you for the interview that you have organized here today. I have repeated several times before and I'd like to repeat it again that people of the United States are a good people, that the rich culture, that the Anglo-American culture is a very rich one.

America possesses a deep technical and financial know-how and I've always said that such people with such greatness should be safeguarding the pillars of peace in the international arena.

And this country can, by adopting the right position of its government, get more help in order to advance the causes of democracy and advanced technological know-how and play a vital role in other countries acquiring such knowledges....

They [Americans] wanted religious freedom at the time the Constitution was given birth. They wanted religious freedom to be a big part of it. And freedom and religious tolerance were supposed to be able to co-exist together. And such people with such greatness should not be misused or used towards advancing violent policies that seem to be taking place throughout the world.

I would like to pay my respects to the people of the United States with the hope that we can move towards a path that will give us permanent peace on the world stage, not on a limited basis.

VERJEE: You say that you may be concerned that the American people are being used -- what do you mean by that? Or, misused.

KHATAMI: I believe that some of the policies that are undertaken here in the United States, even though they originate with a great deal of good will, they unfortunately may have negative side effects. Some of the initiatives to bring security on the world stage, through violence in order to obtain one's goal, do not help to eliminate violence across the world.

For example, the policies that have been undertaken during the last few years, particularly in the Middle East, have only contributed to the advancement of extremism in the region and throughout the world. As a result of which, the American people, and other people throughout the world, have suffered great consequences.

Billions of dollars of American taxpayer money have been spent to pursue wrong policies throughout the Middle East. A lot of the youth of the United States suffer a lot of -- maybe in positions to be harmed as a result of such policies that are executed through violence. The response will only be violence.

Regional terror

I have no doubt that today the backers of extremists in the Middle East, as result of such policies, have been given more life and more muscle to move towards their extremism, particularly in the name of such policies that are extended in the region through violence. And unfortunately, it is used as an excuse also, to some extent throughout the world, through the hands of extremists.

VERJEE: The U.S. government -- the American people -- may say in the region it is actually Iran and countries like Syria that are supporting -- backing -- groups that are also responsible for fomenting extremism and terror in the region and not just the policy of the United States that creates the instability in the region. How do you respond to that?

KHATAMI: Well, see, talking about the particular case of Afghanistan, the Taliban, who were actually the originators of terrorism, were as opposed to us as they were to the United States. But we undertook policies that helped to undermine the power of the Taliban and brought about a new regime who have been the backers of democracy in Afghanistan today, thank God. We have the best of relations with Afghanistan's government, we have been the biggest helpers to the reconstruction of Afghanistan.

In the case of Iraq, even though we were and we still continue to be against American intervention in Iraq, we have been nevertheless very glad regarding the elimination of Saddam Hussein, who was a threat and a source of instability, and he headed a violent regime in Iraq. And obviously we also were happy he was eliminated. But we firmly believe that through closer cooperation with different countries in the region, such objectives could have been obtained without paving the way for more extreme fervor in Iraq and in the region.

You see now, the extremists are the same ones who are the sworn enemies of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iran is one that wants security in the region and in the country in particular, in Iraq. But it has to be done the right way. We don't believe that people who are opposed to occupation can be labeled terrorists, even though we condemn terrorism in all its forms from wherever it originates. I believe that a country that brings about democracy through revolution cannot be the backer of terrorism and violence.

For example, I am sitting in front of you here today as the fifth elected president of the Islamic Republic of Iran. And you see that our presidents have been chosen democratically through elections, if you will, in the region where most of its leaders are unelected and have to be pushed aside through violence.

But I don't see how a country that is as culturally rich as ours and has opposed terrorism and violence in all its forms and was mentioned from the president of this country, of the United States, as such a rich country, such an old country, cannot be labeled a sponsor of terrorism, a backer of extremism.

Relationship with Hezbollah

We sincerely believe that a lot of the policies that are so-called executed in order to fight terrorism and violence, we believe that they are the originators of such terrorist activities. We believe that such efforts can be executed hand-in-hand and side-by-side with the people of Iran.

VERJEE: But backing groups like Hezbollah, even though you argue that those may be freedom fighters, as many do, does that not undermine the stability of a region? Hezbollah is responsible for killing innocent civilians, regardless of what the political arguments may be. So by Iran backing groups like Hezbollah, whether it's through money, or through guns or rockets, does that not undermine the security of the region? Does a country like Iran also not bear responsibility?

KHATAMI: Hezbollah is a Lebanese movement, it has declared itself as such, it defends the territorial integrity of Lebanon. And it has announced that until such time that Lebanon is under occupation -- and as you know, part of Lebanon, the Shaba Farms region, is under Israeli occupation -- until such occupation is ended, the resistance will continue. Hezbollah is an active participant in Lebanese democracy and the Lebanese parliament in the Lebanese government. And we can say that there is almost a complete consensus in Lebanon that such a movement is necessary, such resistance is necessary.

And I think the fact that the small country of Lebanon that was taking the first steps towards democracy, and Iran also announced that we have never given any operational backing to the Hezbollah. We have a lot of close intellectual ties with the Hezbollah. Hezbollah is a representative of the Lebanese resistance and the Lebanese people. And I am quite frankly amazed that Hezbollah is condemned as such an extremist or terrorist group, because they simply took the action of capturing, as prisoners of war, two Israeli soldiers, when thousands of their compatriots are living in Israeli prisons. As a result of this, Israel allows itself to destroy Lebanese territory, kill hundreds of women and children in Lebanon. Are these types of attacks and killings, are these the ones that have to be condemned and eradicated, or the resistance against such attacks?

When there is no occupation, when there is no threat, the Hezbollah will be a simple political movement in Lebanon. It can be the source of a very important civil organization and movement and it will be such.

VERJEE: But it's easy to criticize and to attack the United States, the government, the policy, Israel. Don't you think too, though, that Muslim leaders themselves have a responsibility in addressing policies in their own region that undermine their own security and deal with the problems in their own backyards before pointing fingers at the U.S. and Israel?

KHATAMI: I definitely will admit that there may be some problems and mistakes that exist in the region, but I firmly believe that the problems and challenges of the region must be resolved through the participation of the people of the region and cooperation between the countries of the region. One -- taking one side only with an unfair view, particularly regarding the true crimes of Israel, will only increase the challenges and the problems. The United States can, through the creation of a new and fair policy in the region, with close cooperation with the countries in the region, can instill a long-lasting multilateral peace in the region.

Nature of U.S. visit

And obviously we do have some mistakes, some challenges in the region, wrong decisions taken by the leaders in the region, but I firmly believe that it's only increased through foreign intervention. I again firmly believe that through dialogue and close cooperation and understanding, there is a better way to work through and eliminate the problems and challenges, rather than threats and violence.

VERJEE: And to facilitate that, to that end, have you requested a meeting with President Bush or any other U.S. administration official while you are here?

KHATAMI: I did not make such a request, nor was that the scope of my trip. I am on a non-political trip. And I have no political responsibilities in Iran.

But I firmly believe that during the time that I had political responsibilities, when President Clinton was also at the helm of the U.S. government, we took firm, decisive steps towards creating mutual understanding between our two great countries, even though the steps were slow. But unfortunately, the fact that the wrong and violent policies against the region, particularly Iran, came into existence, the way the process was going was brought to an end.

Message for President Bush

Towards the last few weeks, when the United States had mentioned that it may have been ready to talk for rapprochement, we were also very hopeful that we would be able to solve such challenges. But unfortunately, through unfair conditions prior to any such negotiations that have been imposed by the United States, Iran, as far as I'm concerned, when it feels that there will be no change -- there will be a change in the policies and the behavior of the United States, Iran will also think its policies anew and bring about new policies.

VERJEE: If you had an opportunity to sit down with President Bush, what is the one thing you would tell him today?

KHATAMI: I would tell him that the United States, with all of its might and resources, can side-by-side with the good people of the Middle East, bring about a new experience in the creation of democracy and the advancement of democracy, even though the way to democracy may have been slow originating in the Middle East.

With a change in the language, from going to a language of threats, to switching to a language of rapprochement and understanding, of mutual understanding, the United States can have a better position in the region. Quite frankly, I would tell him that the policies that the United States has chosen, unfortunately has brought about the wrong sentiment towards the United States and has only increased and will only increase extremism in our region.

VERJEE: Do you think that someone of your stature, someone like yourself, could be a go-between, between Tehran and Washington?

Nuclear ambitions

KHATAMI: I quite frankly, more than -- I think a lot more about the question of peace on the worldwide stage, rather than just an understanding between the United States and Iran. For this reason, most of my personal efforts have been directed towards getting the Center for Dialogue of Civilizations going and on its feet in Geneva, Switzerland, which I founded. And I'm one of the 18 members invited by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, to discuss Dialogue of Civilizations at the United Nations. And this was also talked about between the Turkish and Spanish prime minister.

VERJEE: Is Iran pursuing a nuclear bomb?

KHATAMI: I think these questions have been answered enough times by the supreme leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It has never been the policy nor the mindset of any branch of the Iranian government to pursue atomic weapons, which can be the source of vast, numerous deaths in the world. We have no interest in building such weapons. What is the question here, is that the technology that we want to use, which is the nuclear civilian technology, according to the NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty], is our right.

And through fair policies of the [U.N.'s nuclear watchdog] International Atomic Energy Agency, which we're a member of, and also signatories to the Non-proliferation Treaty, they have enough instruments in their hands to prevent any country from building nuclear weapons.

By the same token if there are any second thoughts about the question we, through talks, through communication and negotiations, the needed guarantees can be given -- give assurances that we're not pursuing the atomic weapon concept.

VERJEE: Why should the West trust Iran?

KHATAMI: Why should the West not trust Iran? That's my question. See, at this moment Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, has declared many times that it has no interest in building the nuclear bomb. All the inspections have shown that there has been no movement towards building atomic weapons or bombs.

This country -- as any country -- who is interested in having nuclear technology for civilian purposes in order to advance its own energy independence in the future, I have to give this right to them, in my mind. But I think, unfortunately, if nuclear weapons are dangerous, if nuclear bombs are dangerous, we have to move collectively towards the elimination of such weapons across the globe.

And my proposal to the United Nation was to eliminate such threats, such atomic nuclear threats, region by region, and in our region there are three countries that possess such devastating nuclear weaponry. And none of them are signatories to the Non-proliferation Treaty.

And in order for the United States to show that it has no favoritism in its foreign policies regarding the matter, it has to pressure the countries -- the three countries that I mentioned -- to become signatories to the Non-proliferation Treaty, and also approach the countries that have such weapons to eliminate those nuclear weapons.

And the ones who do not posses it but are interested in achieving nuclear technology for civilian purposes, it has to work with them, within a specific framework, to assure the world that these countries will not move towards the creation or the possession of the nuclear weapons.

Again, my question is, why should the West not trust Iran?

VERJEE: Because the response is that, for almost 20 years, Iran deceived the International Atomic Energy Agency and pursued a uranium enrichment program, and it's the IAEA who says also plutonium experiments were undertaken. And that is the reason, perhaps, that Iran is viewed with suspicion, because it hid this program, according to the IAEA.

KHATAMI: Well, the accusations that have been mentioned are exaggerated, obviously, and put out as fact that we have been eluding the IAEA for years. Maybe some information was delayed in reaching the agency.

Whatever happened, there's no reason and there has been no reason to bring international pressure on us. The more we've cooperated closely with the IAEA, the more international pressure we've suffered. But during the last five or six years, when I decided to expand my cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency, we gave the agency a great deal of cooperation, even though we were not signatories to the protocol. We voluntarily participated in executing the terms of the protocol.

And almost I can say that all, all of the challenges and matters that were under question by the International Atomic Energy Agency were resolved, and if there were a couple of matters remaining, we were hopeful at the time -- we are still hopeful as this time that through peaceful negotiations and communications we can eliminate such challenges.

But some of the information, what they can say is that Iran did not give, turn over, some of the information to them. But Iran has given all of the required information to the IAEA during the last few years. And all of the steps that we've taken were towards resolving the issue. And as someone who has some familiarity with this issue, I can honestly tell you that there is no legal question bearing on Iran's nuclear activity for civilian purposes.

We, as I said, participated voluntarily in many programs. But unfortunately as a result of international pressure, a lot of the Iranian politicians felt that this is not only not resolving any of the remaining challenges, it is only resulting in creating obstacles for Iran in order for it not to be able to reach its nuclear civilian objectives.

Possibility of sanctions

And if there are any guarantees that are needed here, I think it is better and easier to reach those through respectful mutual communication and negotiations.

VERJEE: But Iran continues to enrich uranium. And there's a very real threat that Iran may get slapped with sanctions. Is it worth it?

KHATAMI: What we are doing, have been doing, is mostly research efforts at a very low level, and therefore it does not pose any serious threats to anyone. And Iran has announced that it is ready and it stands ready at any time under any conditions to continue its negotiations or dialogues. And I firmly believe that if we're going to reach any agreements, it will have to be as a result of negotiations and communication.

I propose that the United States and the Iranian -- the United States government and the U.N. Security Council, I seriously propose that they do not threaten sanctions or impose sanctions upon Iran, and the United States government has a great deal of influence on the council. Through mutual negotiations and respectful negotiations, there are many better ways to resolve any outstanding issues.

VERJEE: Couldn't the deadlock -- if it does come to that -- over the nuclear issue lead to an attack on Iran? Do you worry about that?

KHATAMI: We are definitely worried and hopeful that such a thing will not take place, such attack will not take place. I think, in all honesty, the probability of such a thing taking place is very low, and I firmly believe that the only power that can undertake, can take such steps, is the United States, and quite frankly, I think the United States has caused itself enough problems in Iraq. And the U.S. public will no longer permit the U.S. government to create such problems in other countries.

And I think that such talks can only increase the difficulties in communication. We live in a very sensitive region in the Middle East. And also other activities that other countries in the region are pursuing, and other countries in the world are pursuing, I don't think that Iran's activities are any more dangerous than what other countries throughout the world have been pursuing.

I think there should be fair view of what's going on and we should not increase or bring about any more crises in a region that's already challenged with many crises that it's dealing with.

VERJEE: On the nuclear issue -- do you think President Ahmadinejad should be handling it differently?

KHATAMI: It is under the control of the leadership of the Iranian government, meaning Ayatollah Khamenei. To the point that I can tell, the same behavior and the same interest is shown by the Iranian government to resolve the outstanding issues and any other issues in the region, but by the same token Iran is still insisting on its right to pursue and obtain nuclear energy for civilian purposes, on an equal footing and only if treated fairly. But it will not give in on this matter.

Iran and Iraq

VERJEE: Is Iran fueling the insurgency in Iraq?

KHATAMI: Who are the ones who create these insurgencies in Iraq? The ones who officially say that they're sworn enemies of Iran and Shiite Muslims. And a lot of those whose hands were cut short from committing crimes in Afghanistan have unfortunately migrated to Iraq for such violent activities.

The level of Shiites, of Muslim Shiites, killed and those who are as a whole closer to Iran in Iraq is much higher than the numbers of Americans or any other group killed. How can we have stability in such a region, in such a country, where these things are taking place? The ones who as the proposal originated by the United States on Iraq was first accepted by the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Iran, we were the first backers, just like the United States, to be the backers of the referendum proposal. And also, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the great leader of the Shiites in Iraq, he is also the one who invites people to the road of peace and mutual understanding. And also after the explosion and violent attack on the most cherished shrine in Shiite Islam in Iraq, still the Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani insisted that the followers of Shiite Islam do not undertake vindictive actions against such vicious attack.

And unfortunately, it seems that still lately some of the Western politicians are making further mistakes by creating unfortunately closer relations with the extremists and the terrorists, all the while saying that they are fighting terrorism. No one, particularly Iran, will gain anything out of instability created in Iraq.

VERJEE: So, you are categorically telling me that Iran is not fomenting violence or influencing the situation on the ground with regard to violence and terrorism in Iraq?

KHATAMI: Absolutely. That's correct. If anything, all Iran has been trying to do is to create a more peaceful, a more secure atmosphere that is more receptive to mutual understanding. And for this reason, Iran has always taken the first step among the countries in the region, in order to back the democratically elected government and also in order to maintain the independence of the legislative body in Iraq. And rest assured, as I said, Iran firmly believes in this -- insecurity in Iraq will first have bad consequences, negative consequences for its neighbor, Iran.

VERJEE: But there have been arguments, too, though, that Iran stands to benefit from the instability in Iraq. How do you respond to that?

KHATAMI: Why -- what would we have to gain? No, Iran would have nothing to gain out of this. Our biggest enemy was done away with, deposed if you will, in Iraq. He fought a war in our country for eight years. The government that's been elected in Iraq has been close to us without any particular favoritism being given to it by our government, keep in mind. And I especially think that Iran, more than any other questions in region, is wanting for peace and stability to be brought in to Iraq and to be created into Iraq and hopes that a democratically elected Iraqi government will be able to gain control over the many challenges and issues that continue to face it.

And I still firmly believe, we firmly believe, that the United States must cooperate directly with Iran, must directly cooperate with Iraq and other countries in the region in order to strengthen the independent government in Iraq. There will come a time when foreign forces and troops have to leave Iraqi soil and the continuation of this occupation gives the greatest excuse to the terrorists and the extremists to undertake their activities as they have been.

VERJEE: Do you think Iraq is headed to civil war?

KHATAMI: If it wasn't for the great participation and effort of Iraqi leaders such as the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, if it wasn't for their efforts, I believe it would be headed down the road to civil war. A lot of the Shiites, the majority of the Shiites, have been prevented from undertaking vindictive actions, as I said.

Israel and Palestine

And that has increased a lot of the flames that could have been fanned if they were to have done otherwise. We are quite frankly hoping that such civil war will not take place in Iraq.

VERJEE: President Ahmadinejad has said that Israel should be wiped off the face of the map. What are your thoughts on a comment like that? Do you agree?

KHATAMI: I personally never said that Israel should be wiped off the map. I always said -- and backed -- fair and equal peace in the region with the main pillar -- one of the major pillars of which would have to be fair treatment of Palestinians, and also the repatriation rights of the Palestinian refugees. And also the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Only in that case, we firmly believe, that Christians, Jews and Muslims can live side by side in peace and prosperity.

We firmly believe, however, that occupation cannot be a source of dictating conditions. A country cannot go and occupy a territory and upon such occupation being complete, then turn around and say I am the owner of such land and such parts of any countries. If that were to be the case, than the Nazi occupation of France should have been accepted. But as you see, one of the greatest sources of pride of the French people today has been defeating the foreign occupiers.

I firmly believe, as I said before, that fair peace must be brought into the region, must be created in the region. And also one of the deciding factors will be the public opinion and the thought of the Palestinians and those who live in other territories, and it's only natural that whatever conditions they accept must also be accepted by others in the region.

VERJEE: So were you disappointed, and you do not agree with Ahmadinejad's comments about Israel being wiped off the face of the map? You're distancing yourself from those remarks.

KHATAMI: I firmly back a fair and equal peace in the region.

VERJEE: So you believe in a two-state solution with Palestine and Israel living together, side by side?

President Bush compared with Osama bin Laden

KHATAMI: It's the people in that region that have to be the decision-makers. And what is going on today is the non-existence of any rights for the Palestinian people, whether they're the refugees who are waiting for repatriation, or those who are living under oppressive conditions, constant bombardment, military attack and sieges. All of these must be eliminated. But obviously the final decision-makers will be the ones who are living in those territories.

VERJEE: You once said that Osama bin Laden and President Bush are indistinguishable because they both have extremist views. Do you still believe that? Why would you say that?

KHATAMI: I apparently did not use anyone's name specifically, and I said those who bring about violence have a lot in common. Those who think of themselves as superior, think of others as the bad ones and the originators. Those who start wars, they are the same ones who will bring about violence. Violence and extremism comes from the following: If one party keeps saying that we are the fair ones, we have the right policy and the right behavior, and either you all must fall in line with this policy or you will be oppressed -- those who are not with us are against us -- such policies and such frames of mind will bring about extremism and terrorism.

I said terrorism and war have one origin, have one spark, one frame of mind. We have to keep ourselves away from this, and particularly when it comes to relations, vis-a-vis other countries, we must move in close coordination and synchronization with the other countries in the world community. Only then will the region be free of challenges and difficulties that we see today.

VERJEE: Most Americans, though, would be quite shocked -- perhaps even appalled -- to hear a comparison, even in the same sentence, between the White House and -- the policies of this administration -- and Osama bin Laden.

KHATAMI: The mindset that brings about war and violence, I condemn it -- categorically condemn it. And I definitely believe that the people of the Unites States are logical enough to think along the same ideals as I do, without having to go out of this framework that I just mentioned.

VERJEE: What do you make of Osama bin Laden? There are many people in the Arab world, in the Muslim world, that view him as a hero. When you look at that, when you hear that, what is it that you think?

KHATAMI: Unfortunately, this extremist violent movement that committed an awful crime on September 11 -- and again, approaching the anniversary of September 11, I categorically condemn these actions, and I give my condolences again to the loved ones and those who remain of the fallen ones on September 11. This, unfortunately, was a movement that was created with the backing of Western countries and governments at the time of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

And a movement, called Afghan-Arab movement, was created by the backing and financing of many Western countries, and after the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, this movement became a very strong movement that was able to attract all of the extremists from different factions, especially the youth, to itself, and was able to expand its terrorist operations worldwide. And unfortunately we saw their actions that came back to haunt Western countries, such as in [Madrid] Spain, such as in New York City, and we see it on a smaller scale, perhaps, today in Iraq almost on a daily basis.

And it is this kind of extremism, these types of movements, that should not exist, that are bad. But the discussion is this: if today, in the Islamic world, we have a meeting of the minds, unfortunately the number of extremist youths who firmly swear allegiance, if you will, to Osama bin Laden, today have increased, as opposed to five or six years ago in the region.

Therefore I say that a lot of the policies executed in the name of the fight against terrorism have sparked more extremism, more terrorism and more warfare, and unfortunately these policies have brought about a lot of disgruntled youth, and simple-minded youth in our region have brought about their closeness to such extremist movements.

As a result of such wrong policies, such unilateral violent policies, that the voice of logic has decreased, and the voice of terror, the attractiveness of terror unfortunately among the youth has increased.

Islamist extremists

And we must let go of unilateral unfair policies that are executed and are brought about in other countries in the name of fairness and progress. As I said, I firmly believe that they have only increased extremism and violent movements.

VERJEE: Have extremists hijacked Islam? Have Muslim leaders failed?

KHATAMI: I believe that the one who commits violence is committing a crime, and the one who commits crime in the name of the religion of God is committing two crimes, whether it's in the name of Islam, Christianity, Hinduism -- particularly Islam. Violence is a crime in Islam, the elimination and the killing of innocent people brings about hate. It is not accepted in Islam.

And if in the name of religion, particularly a religion that came into being, that was brought to us by God, in order to create peace, it's even a bigger crime. Whether it's in the name of Islam or in the name of other religions or whatever mindset, it is a crime to commit violence.

And it's the Muslim people first and foremost who must stand against such violence, violent movements and extremisms, and the United States, more than anyone else perhaps, along with the Muslim world, can help defeat such extremist movements. Democracy is not something that can be imposed upon a society, particularly if, in the name of democracy and human rights -- particularly if these two concepts are only used as tools.

And if the Islamic world can progress and move forward and be helped -- be helped in bringing about an internally cultivated and originated democratic movement, then all of the youth in those countries in the Islamic world want to have equality and democracy.

Iran and the United States

And any such mindset can defeat extremism and violence, and I firmly believe the Islamic world's leaders have a vital role to play by showing the true face of the Islamic faith, by showing -- which is peace and equality, particularly to the youth, particularly to those who act more on sentiment and feelings, which are the youth of every society -- show them the true and right face of Islam and the Islamic human values that this religion has.

VERJEE: You are a believer in the dialogue of civilization. Yet at this time there is no dialogue between your country and the United States -- why?

KHATAMI: You see, we have to distinguish between dialogue between two civilizations and dialogue between two countries and two governments. A political dialogue is based on the foundations of what is beneficial, what is mutually beneficial, or at the heart of the national interest of one side or another.

But the dialogue of civilization is deeper than this. It is a dialogue that is undertaken in order to reach the truth. And those of us can engage in such dialogues who firmly believe in the concept to begin with.

Those who do not believe that what they think, what they have in their minds is the whole truth and nothing but the truth, those can be a part of this, who believe that in every civilization exists part of the complete truth, part of what can create the complete picture, and therefore create the basic foundation that can be used in order to help all of humanity.

The dialogue between civilizations is much deeper and much more fundamental than dialogue between two countries based on political views, and again I firmly believe that the best resolution to political impasses is not war, is not threat or the language of force, is dialogue between civilizations and countries.

Only when the two sides feel treated -- feel that they are treated with mutual respect, with complete fairness, and not when one side feels that because of more strength or more force that it possesses it has therefore the right to dictate conditions. This is best strategy and method -- dialogue in order to eliminate the problems and reach mutual understanding.

Sunnis and Shiites

Its never been -- no problem has ever been eradicated through violence and warfare.

VERJEE: One of the problems in the Sunni Arab world, perhaps, is one of nervousness, where they look at Iran and see the growth of Shia power in the region. What would you say to those leaders who may be looking at Iran and their perceived role in Iraq and its perceived backing of groups which they say destabilize the region, and its wish to have a nuclear program? It makes Sunni leaders nervous. How do you allay that, what do you say to them?

KHATAMI: I believe that these preoccupations are originated from sides who do not wish to benefit Sunni or Shiites. They want to create the foundation for their own existence and intervention in particular scenarios or regions by creating difficulties between various sects. In Iran, the majority are Shiites -- some parts of Iran are Sunnis. In other countries, in most Muslim countries, the majority of the population are Sunni Muslims. But what is important for us, is that number one, the fundamentals of Islam are respected.

Second, is to understand Islam in such a way that will be relevant with democracy and progress. And thirdly, to combat and stand steadfastly against any extremism and violent movement that originated in the name of Islam. And I think based on these three concepts, these three facts, Sunnis and Shiites have a lot in common.

And I firmly believe in this, also based on the fact that the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Iraq, the great leader of the Shiites, never wanted or never asked or imposed a majority Shiite government, even though the majority of the population are Shiites.

Even though most of the current Iraqi laws have the word Islam in them and have the Islamic foundation behind them, Islam is not the part that dictates the day-to-day beliefs or activities. I think it's the democratic government and countries within which all religions can feel free to exist and be practiced. And I really don't believe that because Iran is Shiite and is trying to supplement a wave of Shiite influence in the region, it is absolutely untrue.

In many cases Iranian Shiites have shown a lot more preoccupation and worries about other populations who are majority Sunnis in the region, due to the conditions that they live in. Iran has shown a lot more preoccupation for there conditions than a lot of Sunni countries and governments have shown.

Time in the United States

I think these thoughts and differences that I outlined between the two sects of Sunni and Shiite are brought in from outside the region, originated from outside the region, and it is not based in fact, quite frankly. And I believe that in parts of the Sunni world and the Shiite world, there may be some attitudes that the scholars and the educated members of society must watch out for those, so that they do not become wide gaps within the society.

VERJEE: A final question: Do you wish you had made this trip as president, to the United States?

KHATAMI: I quite honestly never had such a liking, never took such liking to political activities, you know, presidency in such terms. I believe that I am responsible to humanity as a whole.

I came to New York City three times as president, but I am very happy that today I am in the United States as a civilian, as a normal citizen, therefore have more opportunities to meet with scholars from different groups from within the United States, have more contact with them, have more interaction and bring them the message of peace and best wishes from the Iranian people to the United States, and perhaps have a small part in paving the way so that the United States and Iran can have mutual peaceful, understandings.

And I really believe that this will help promote peace, not only in the region, but also on the world stage as a whole.

VERJEE: Has anything surprised you about being here?

KHATAMI: I have had a great time up until now, and I quite frankly hope to keep enjoying this trip for the remainder of the days that I am here. Also meeting you as a reporter, as a member, a young, energetic member, successful member of the media was indeed a pleasure.

VERJEE: Thank you, thank you very much. I really appreciate that, very kind of you to say.

Mohammad Khatami was president of Iran from 1997 to 2005.




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