Saturday, September 02, 2006

Ex-Iran leader speaks in Chicago

E.A. Torriero and Stephen Franklin, The Chicago Tribune:
In the first speech on American soil by a high-ranking Iranian official in three decades, former President Mohammed Khatami appeared in the Chicago area Saturday and urged people to engage in a "dialogue of civilizations."

With his country firm on its nuclear development program, Khatami -- a reformist who led Iran from 1997 to 2005 -- did not engage in the worldwide debate over Iran's actions and its refusal to meet the UN deadline to suspend uranium enrichment.

Instead, at an appearance at a suburban Chicago mosque Khatami rallied Muslims to work for the cause of peace.

"There is a great opportunity of dialogue and cooperation by people's of faith," he said through a translator at an invitation-only gathering at the Bait ul Ilm Islamic Center in Streamwood on Saturday afternoon.

And by people of faith, Khatami said, he was not referring to those who create mayhem in the name of God.

"I don't mean the extremists," he said. "I don't mean the terrorists."

Khatami is on a mission these days to be an Islamic diplomat of dialogue to the West.

A key part of his visit to the United States -- which only on Tuesday granted him a last-minute visa -- is to appear at a United Nations conference in New York next week at which one of the themes will be bridging the gap between the Islamic world and the West.

The State Department has downplayed the visit, calling it private. Yet State Department security was on hand at the mosque screening all entrants. Streamwood police and U.S. Secret Service kept close watch outside. Despite outcries last week by some American legislators and Jewish organizations over granting Khatami's visa, there were no demonstrators.

Neither Khatami nor his aides took questions from the audience or the media. The status of a possible visit with former President Jimmy Carter remained unclear Saturday. And there was no indication Khatami would meet with anyone in the Bush administration.

Mosque leaders said Saturday that they were inundated with requests to attend Khatami's visit, which was put together quickly.

"People wanted to come by buses and trains," said Amir Mukhtar Fayzi, the mosque's imam, or spiritual leader.

Khatami was scheduled to speak Saturday night to the Islamic Society of North America, meeting in Rosemont for its 43rd annual convention. Leaders of the group said that had they learned earlier that Khatami had obtained a visa they would have staged a "million man Muslim march" around Chicago. READ MORE

On Saturday afternoon, Khatami took a campaign line from former President Ronald Reagan.

Asking whether the world was better off than it was in the 400 years before the Renaissance, Khatami answered by saying there is "too much material and materialism."

The result, Khatami said, is a world of "insecurity."