CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – Former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami, in a speech at Harvard University, condemned Osama bin Laden for committing crimes in the name of Islam and said Jews have the right to live peacefully, but he skirted the issue of whether they have the right to do so in their state of Israel.
Speaking on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Khatami said he had two problems with the Al Qaeda leader behind the attacks.
"First, because of the crimes he conducts," he said, "and second because he conducts them in the name of Islam, the religion which is a harbinger of peace and justice."
Khatami, whose speech in Farsi was relayed through a translator, said he was one of the first world leaders to condemn "the barbarous acts" of Sept. 11.
In response to a question about the notion of suicide bombers gaining entry to heaven as reward for their martyrdom, Khatami said, "Those who put others through hell will never go to heaven."
Khatami took a softer tone on Israel than current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when asked whether he favored the elimination of the state of Israel. He said he opposes the systematic elimination of any people. "The Jews have a right to live in peace and control their destinies," he said, but he didn't say whether they have a right to do so in an Israeli state in the Middle East.
Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group, is widely believed to have received weapons and other support from its backers Syria and Iran. Khatami denied that Iran helps fund the group and defended the organization's right to exist.
"Hezbollah today is a symbol of Lebanese resistance," he said during his 30-minute speech given under tight security at the John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Khatami repeatedly praised the concept of democracy but said American politicians, since World War II, have been infatuated with "world domination."
Khatami is the most senior Iranian to travel outside New York in the United States since Islamic fundamentalists seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and held Americans hostage for 444 days. He was invited to the United States by the U.N.-sponsored Alliance of Civilizations, of which he is a founding member. The group strives to foster cross-cultural understanding between Western and Islamic states.
Police estimated about 200 protesters showed up for the speech, and many blamed Khatami for failing to stop government crackdowns on student activists in Tehran during his two terms in office. Several human rights organizations say the crackdowns are believed to have been initiated by his rivals and approved by Iran's ruling Muslim clerics.
Khatami was considered a reformist during his two terms as president that ended last year. His visit to the United States has been criticized by many, particularly amid concerns about Iran's nuclear program.
The visit angered Joshua Levin, 42. He said, "When someone this evil comes to your city you must oppose him. He's a fascist. He sponsors terror."