TEHRAN, Iran – Iranian President Mohammad Khatami (search) said Wednesday that American support for student-led protests only serves to unite his country against the United States.
Khatami, a reformist president elected in 1997, said comments by Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) and others supporting the unrest amount to "interference" in Iran's internal affairs.
"The incorrect position adopted by the Americans, irrespective of the fact that it was an act of interference in Iran's internal affairs, fortunately caused greater national solidarity," the president told reporters after meeting with the Afghan and Tajik presidents.
The comments were Khatami's first following a week of fierce clashes between pro-clergy hard-line militants and student-led protesters that left dozens injured and many more behind bars.
The U.S. administration condemned the crackdown, angering Iran's government.
President Bush on Wednesday paid tribute to "those courageous souls who speak out for freedom in Iran" and urged Tehran to treat protesters with "the utmost of respect."
"They need to know America stands squarely by their side," he said in Washington.
Powell said Tuesday that the Iranian people were dissatisfied.
"We are not out there inside Iran fomenting them," Powell said. "But if people wish to demonstrate peacefully and demonstrate for their rights and a better life, that seems to us a proper thing to do."
Khatami acknowledged that political differences existed in Iran but said a majority of Iranians would unite in rejecting the U.S. position.
Khatami said he is "confident" that if he called upon Iranians to protest against "foreign interference ... an overwhelming majority of Tehran residents will support my call."
Last week's protests, the largest in months, began with students demonstrating against plans to privatize universities and snowballed into broader displays of opposition to Iran's clerical establishment, led by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (search).
Although the protests largely stopped after a huge security deployment and the unleashing of hard-line thugs to attack the protesters, sporadic protests have spread to other Iranian cities in recent days.
Khatami downplayed the significance of the protests, saying that differences in Iran are normal and "this is a requirement for democracy."