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Iranian leader scoffs at Bush claim in address

By Knight Ridder Newspapers and The Associated Press

DAVOS, Switzerland Iranian President Mohammad Khatami yesterday disputed President Bush's claim that his tough stance against terrorism drove Iran to agree to United Nations inspections of its nuclear sites.

Bush, in his State of the Union address Tuesday night, cited the Iranian agreement and that of Libya to give up its nuclear-weapons efforts as evidence of his foreign policy's success.

"I do not accept what he said," Khatami said. "All the noise and fanfare of the United States didn't have any impact on our decision."

In an unusual public appearance outside Iran, at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Khatami called for dialogue to solve global conflicts. But he added he believed there was no chance for political talks with the United States because of a lack of respect for Tehran's Islamic government, labeled part of an "axis of evil" by President Bush.

Terrorism and the economy were expected to top the Davos agenda. The forum attracts international business and government leaders.

"Partnership and security will only come about as a result of dialogue," Khatami said in his speech, which drew warm applause.

Asked at a news conference if he would speak with Vice President Dick Cheney, who is to arrive soon, Khatami said he was speaking of a process that would begin with an exchange of scholars and improved cultural ties.

"The dialogue that I spoke of is between cultures and civilizations, between scholars and wise men," Khatami said. "If those are realized, then we can have political dialogue as well."

Protesters who accuse the forum of being elitist and imperialist tried to stop participants from traveling up the Alps to Davos by blocking access to a highway at the Zurich airport for half an hour, police said. More demonstrations were planned Saturday, when Cheney is to speak.

Khatami yesterday laughed when asked if he was afraid of a hard-line U.S. policy that Bush claims forced Libya and Iran to back off attempts to develop weapons of mass destruction. Asked about reports that North Korea had supplied Iran with nuclear-weapons technology, he said, "I categorically deny that there were nuclear shipments from North Korea to Iran."

The United States has long suspected Iran of pursuing atomic weapons under cover of a civilian nuclear-energy program. 
"We vehemently oppose the manufacture and production of nuclear weapons. For this reason we extend sincere and honest cooperation with the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency)," Khatami declared.

Iran agreed in October to suspend its uranium-enrichment program and accept intrusive international inspections. A month later, the IAEA condemned Iran over an 18-year cover-up of sensitive atomic research and said it would not tolerate future breaches of its nonproliferation obligations.

Khatami is in the thick of a domestic political crisis over Iran's parliamentary elections Feb. 20. His appearance came hours after Iranian Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi said some of Khatami's Cabinet ministers submitted contingent letters of resignation to protest the powerful Guardian Council's decision to ban 3,500 reformist candidates in the elections.

The council, appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has the final say on all issues. It said it banned candidates who didn't conform to Islamic edicts or Iran's constitution.

Khatami, a reformist repeatedly stymied by the Guardian Council, told a Swiss TV station he would not resign. Tired of failed efforts at reform, many Iranians have lost faith in him.


Copyright 2004 The Seattle Times Company


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