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Iranian ex-leader urges dialogue

Published September 8, 2006

WASHINGTON - The most senior Iranian to visit Washington in 25 years said Thursday that the two nations' long estrangement should be repaired through dialogue instead of threats, as world powers moved closer to imposing punishments on Iran over its disputed nuclear program.

Mohammed Khatami, a two-term Iranian president once seen as the harbinger of moderation and better relations with the United States, also said three of the nations that have offered to bargain with Iran may be willing to change the terms.

Khatami said Russia, China and France would agree to negotiate without preconditions that Iran has said are unacceptable, but he did not elaborate. Those nations, with the United States, Britain and Germany, have offered trade and aid incentives to Iran if it rolls back a nuclear program that the West fears could produce a weapon, with United Nations sanctions the price of refusal.

The group agreed that Iran must agree to shelve its uranium enrichment program before talks on the package could start and no nations have said publicly that they would reconsider.

"Even now I believe that relations between our two respective governments should be resolved through dialogue," Khatami said during a news conference with U.S. and other reporters. He spoke through a translator.

"Using violence by every side and violent language by every side is not conducive to dialogue, and it will increase and exacerbate the problems," Khatami said.

He took a swipe at the Bush administration for what he called human rights abuses in the Iraq war and the pursuit of terrorists.

"I do not deny the existence of problems in Iran, but I would certainly say those are not (worse than) the violations in places like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo," Khatami said. "Let's condemn the violation of human rights wherever it takes place."

President Bush and his administration are not giving Khatami a warm reception, although the U.S. government is providing and paying for security agents for the former Iranian president.

The centerpiece of Khatami's visit to Washington was an address Thursday at Washington National Cathedral, a few miles from the White House.

In remarks prepared for delivery, the cleric made a scholarly, theological plea for greater dialogue among cultures but stayed away from current events.

The address coincided with what may be a turning point in the long and largely fruitless international effort to deny Iran technology and expertise that the West fears could lead to a nuclear weapon.

If the United States gets its way, world powers could vote in the next few weeks to impose the first in a series of punishments intended to further increase pressure on Iran to roll back its nuclear development program.

Iran claims its program is aimed only at generating nuclear energy.

Diplomats from the countries that have offered to bargain with Tehran met Thursday in Berlin to discuss the next step now that Iran has defied a U.N. deadline to shelve uranium enrichment activities. In different forms, enriched uranium can be used either for nuclear energy or weapons.

Khatami defended what he said is a peaceful nuclear program. He said Russia, China and France, which were part of Thursday's meeting "want negotiations without precondition ... and this is the right position."

[Last modified September 8, 2006, 02:01:05]

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