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Transcript of interview with Iranian President Mohammad Khatami

January 7, 1998
Web posted at: 7:06 p.m. EST (0006 GMT)

AMANPOUR: Mr. President, a month ago you announced that you had a historic message to deliver to the people of America. I understand that message will take the form of a short address and then we'll discuss the issues.

PRESIDENT KHATAMI: In the Name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful. At the outset, I would like to congratulate all free and noble women and men especially the followers of Jesus Christ (peace be upon him), on the occasion of the New Year. I take as a good omen the concurrence of the Christian New Year with the Islamic month of Ramadan, the month of edification and self-restraint that has been the goal of all divine prophets.

We are at the close of the 20th century, leaving behind a century full of inequality, violence, and conflict. We pray to the Almighty to enable us to begin a new century of humanity, understanding, and durable peace, so that all humanity would enjoy the blessings of life. Once again I would like to present my felicitations to all the followers of Jesus Christ, to all human beings, and particularly to the American people.

I have said earlier that I respect the great American people. In this short span of time, I wish to briefly present my analysis of the American civilization so that my remarks would not be taken as political nicety or a mere play on words.

The American civilization is worthy of respect. When we appreciate the roots of this civilization, its significance becomes even more apparent. As you know, in Plymouth, Massachusetts, there is a rock which is respected and revered by all Americans. The secret of American civilization lies in this rock. In early 17th century, those 125 men, women, and children who left England in search of a virgin land to establish a superior civilization finally landed on this rock. The reason why the American people respect this rock is that it was the place where the Puritan pilgrims first landed. From then on, the Americans celebrate the last Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day, thanking God for this success bestowed upon them.

The American civilization is founded upon the vision, thinking, and manners of the Puritans. Certainly, others such as adventurers, those searching for gold, and even sea pirates, also arrived in the U.S. But the American nation has never celebrated their arrival and never considered it to be the beginning of their civilization. The Puritans constituted a religious sect whose vision and characteristics, in addition to worshipping God, was in harmony with republicanism, democracy, and freedom. They found the European climate too restrictive for the implementation of their ideas and thoughts.

Unfortunately, in the 16th, 17th, and even 18th centuries, there was a serious clash between religion and liberty. In my opinion, one of the biggest tragedies in human history is this confrontation between religion and liberty which is to the detriment of religion, liberty, and the human beings who deserve to have both. The Puritans desired a system which combined the worship of God and human dignity and freedom.

This civilization was founded in New England and gradually spread to the entire America and it even clashed with certain evil trends which has caused slavery in certain states and ultimately succeeded in abolishing slavery. There were numerous martyrs who gave their lives for this cause, the most famous of which was Abraham Lincoln, the strong and fair-minded American president.

This civilization is best described by the renowned French sociologist Alexi de Toqueville who spent some two years in the U.S. in the 19th century and wrote the valuable book entitled Democracy in America, which I am sure most Americans have read. This book reflects the virtuous and human side of this civilization. In his view, the significance of this civilization is in the fact that liberty found religion as a cradle for its growth, and religion found protection of liberty as its divine calling. Therefore, liberty and faith never clashed. And as we see, even today Americans are a religious people. Therefore, the Anglo-American approach to religion relies on the principle that religion and liberty are consistent and compatible. I believe that if humanity is looking for happiness, it should combine religious spirituality with the virtues of liberty.

And it is for this reason that I say I respect the American nation because of their great civilization. This respect is due to two reasons: the essence and pillars of the Anglo-American civilization and the dialogue among the civilizations.

You are cognizant of the great heritage of the Iranian nation with its glorious civilization and culture. Irans glorious civilization was concurrent with the Greek city states and the Roman Empire. After the advent of Islam, the Iranians ardently embraced it. The blend of Iranian talents and the sublime Islamic teachings was a miracle. Without intending to deny the share of other nations in the formation of the Islamic civilization, I believe the great Iranian civilization had a major role in developing and promoting the Islamic system.

Over the past two centuries, the Iranian nation has striven to establish liberty, independence and a noble way of life. The Constitutional Movement colonialism. Ultimately, the Islamic Revolution had-and should have-two directions: First, an interpretation of religion which couples religiosity with liberty. Of course, now that four centuries have passed since the beginning of the American civilization, human experience has taught us that prosperous life should hinge on three pillars: religiosity, liberty, and justice. These are the assets and aspirations of the Islamic Revolution as it enters the 21st century.

In terms of the dialogue of civilizations, we intend to benefit from the achievements and experiences of all civilizations, Western and non-Western, and to hold dialogue with them. The closer the pillars and essences of these two civilizations are, the easier the dialogue would become. With our revolution, we are experiencing a new phase of reconstruction of civilization. We feel that what we seek is what the founders of the American civilization were also pursuing four centuries ago. This is why we sense an intellectual affinity with the essence of the American civilization.

Second, there is the issue of the independence. The American nation was the harbinger of independence struggles, the initiator of efforts to establish independence, for whose cause it has offered many sacrifices, leading ultimately to the Declaration of Independence which is an important document on human dignity and rights.

Finally, I should refer to the struggles of the Iranian people over the last two centuries which culminated in the quest for independence during the Islamic Revolution launched by Imam Khomeini. When Imam Khomeini launched the revolution, Iran was in a terrible condition. In other words, the Iranian nation had been humiliated and its fate was decided by others. You know that a remarkable feature of Imam Khomeinis struggle was his fight against capitulation which the Shah was forced to ratify making the American advisors immune from prosecution in Iran. This was the worst humiliation for our people. They rose up, fought for independence, and emerged victorious. Of course, the war of the revolution was one of words not weapons. We, therefore, endeavored to obtain a novel experience of religion and to gain independence. Both these features are salient in the American civilization and we feel close to them.

But here I have to express pity over a tragedy which has occurred. Unfortunately, policies pursued by American politicians outside the United States over the past half a century since World War II are incompatible with the American civilization which is founded on democracy, freedom and human dignity. We ardently wished that those who enforced this foreign policy were representatives of the prominent American civilization; a civilization which was achieved at a heavy cost, and not the representatives of those adventurers who were defeated by the American people themselves.

This flawed policy of domination had three setbacks: One was severe damages that it incurred upon the deprived and oppressed nations, including our own. The other setback was that it dashed the hopes of the people of the colonized world, who had placed their trust in the U.S. tradition of struggle for independence. When the policies for domination were implemented in the name of the American people, the nations lost their trust in the Americans. This represents a grave damage done by the U.S. policies on the American nation. The Third and most important of these setbacks is that what was implemented was done in name of a great people that had risen for freedom. I feel that the American politicians should realize this fact and adjust themselves with the standards of Anglo-American and American civilization and at least apologize to their own people because of the approach they have adopted.

AMANPOUR: You said that you wanted to use this interview to deliver a message to the American people. I've lived in America, and I know the concerns of the average American when it comes to Iran. And its the message that has come out of Iran for the last twenty years, the message; hostage taking, the message of death to America, the message of burning the American flag, the message that almost looks like Islam has declared a war against America and the west. Let me ask you first about the hostage crisis which is emblazoned in every American's mind. As you know, in all revolutions, the communist revolution in Russia, the French revolution, perhaps even the American revolution, the early years contain many excesses. Would you say that taking the American hostages, at the beginning of the Iranian Islamic revolution falls into the category of early revolutionary excesses?

PRESIDENT KHATAMI: Thank you for your question. I believe that first we have to analyze events within their proper context and with circumspection. The image of Islam which has been presented, and I dont want to accuse anyone here, has been an erroneous one. Islam is a religion which calls all humanity, irrespective of religion or belief, to rationality and logic. Islam invites followers of all divine religions to unite around God worship and all Muslims to fraternity. The Islam which we know and practice and founded our revolution on recognized the right of all human beings to determine their own destiny. It declares that relations among nations must be based on logic and mutual respect. Such Islam is enemy to no nation, enemy to no religion. It seeks dialogue, understanding and peace with all nations. One of the major flaws in the U.S. foreign policy, which I recently construed as being behind times, is that they continue to live with cold war mentality and try to create a perceived enemy. Here I dont wish to insult anyone. I know that there are quite a few wise and fair-minded statesmen in the United States, but the outcome of the interplay with the U.S. policy has shaped the U.S. policy in a manner that continues to be a prisoner of cold war mentality. After the collapse of communism, there has been an attempt by certain circles to portray Islam as the new enemy, and regrettably they are targeting progressive Islam rather than certain regressive interpretations of Islam. They attack an Islam which seeks democracy, progress and development; an Islam which calls for utilization of achievements of human civilization including that of the west.

With regard to the hostage issue which you raised, I do know that the feelings of the great American people have been hurt, and of course I regret it. Yet, these same feelings were also hurt when bodies of young Americans were brought back from Vietnam, but the American people never blamed the Vietnamese people, but rather blamed their own politicians for dragging their country and its youth into the Vietnam quagmire. The pressure by the American people terminated that senseless and inhuman war. In fact the American people themselves brought that war to an end.

The feelings of our people were seriously hurt by U.S. policies. And as you said, in the heat of the revolutionary fervor, things happen which cannot be fully contained or judged according to usual norms. This was the crying out of the people against humiliations and inequities imposed upon them by the policies of the U.S. and others, particularly in the early days of the revolution. With the grace of God, today our new society has been institutionalized and we have a popularly elected powerful government, and there is no need for unconventional methods of expression of concerns and anxieties. And I believe when there is logic, especially when there are receptive ears, there is no need other than discourse, debate and dialogue.

AMANPOUR: So, are you saying that despite the grievances that you talk about, with hindsight, if you had to do this all again, would Iran have done it differently at that time?

PRESIDENT KHATAMI: As I said, everything must be analyzed within its own context. The events of those days must be viewed within the context of revolutionary fervor and the pressures to which the Iranian nation was subjected, causing it to seek a way to express its anxieties and concerns. Today we are in the period of stability, and fully adhere to all norms of conduct regulating relations between nations and governments.

With the grace of God, today all the affairs of country are being conducted within the framework of law. And as I have stated, both in domestic and foreign affairs, we shall endeavor to strengthen the rule of law in every respect.

AMANPOUR: Mr. President, Americans, the average American, is familiar with one image of Iran, death to America, the burning of the American flag, and as we talked about, the hostages. You talk about a new chapter in relations between the peoples of the world. What can you say to the Americans listening tonight, to show that person that your Iran is a new Iran or a different Iran?

PRESIDENT KHATAMI: I say that these issues should be examined with due consideration to their root causes and various dimensions. There are slogans being changed in Iran. But, you as a journalist can ask all those chanting the slogans whether they are targeting the American people. And they would all say no. Not only we do not harbor any ill wishes for the American people, but in fact we consider them to be great nation. Our aim is not even to destroy or undermine the American government. These slogans symbolize a desire to terminate a mode of relations which existed between Iran and the United States. This is a response to that grave affront by a former U.S. defense secretary who said the Iranian nation must be rooted out. It is also a response to the downing of the Iranian airliner that killed about 300 innocent people, mostly women and children. Even if we accept that the shooting was accidental, the decoration of the commander of the American naval vessel responsible for the tragedy was indeed adding insult to injury. There is also the recent allocation $20 million by the U.S. Congress to topple the Iranian government. Our people consider U.S. foreign policy to be aimed at undermining and confrontation with itself. And, in fact, they want the death of this relationship. No one has the intention of insulting the American nation and we even consider the U.S. government as the legitimate and lawful representative American flag, which represents its nationhood, and which hurts the collective feelings of the nation. As far as I know, the Leader of the Revolution and other authorities are also not happy with this practice. There might be actions taking place that might not meet with your approval. Yet I am sure that those doing such actions do not intend to insult the American people. And we hope that actions which might be interpreted as anti-American people and nation would not take place.

AMANPOUR: You say that you want to talk to the American people. Are you prepared to sit down eventually and talk to the American government about the issues that you have just mentioned tonight that separate and divide you?

PRESIDENT KHATAMI: Firstly, nothing should prevent dialogue and understanding between two nations, especially between their scholars and thinkers. Right now, I recommend the exchange of professors, writers, scholars, artists, journalists, and tourists. A large number of educated and noble Iranians now reside in the U.S. as representatives of the Iranian nation. This shows that there is no hostility between the two nations. But the dialogue between civilizations and nations is different from political relations. In regard to political relations, we have to consider the factors which lead to the severance of relations.