After concluding a speech last Friday at a hotel in Crystal City, former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami was greeting a throng of supporters when he caught the eye of Seyede Katayon Kasmai.
The 25-year-old Fairfax student, clad in a black chador, moved to the front of the crowd, but hesitated as Khatami approached. Khatami, who ran as a reformist in the 1997 presidential election and served eight years, noticed Kasmai’s indecisiveness and stepped toward her, quickly entering into a discussion about her studies at George Mason University.
"I was so overcome with emotion, that he had to start the dialogue first," said Kasmai, who was born in Tehran and came to Northern Virginia as a young girl.
TO MANY OF Khatami’s backers, the scene serves as an apt metaphor for his groundbreaking two-week trip to the United States, which included the speech in Crystal City sponsored by the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Khatami is the highest-ranking Iranian official to visit the country since 52 Americans were taken hostage in 1979 for 444 days, and the State Department’s decision to grant him a visa sparked controversy. His tour comes at a time of heightened tensions between the two nations, as the Bush administration is seeking wide-ranging sanctions against Iran if it does not suspend work on its nascent nuclear program.
Those who attended the 20-minute speech expressed optimism that while Khatami is no longer a member of the government, his visit will open new channels of communication between the two countries and possibly serve as a first step toward rapprochement.
"Somebody has to extend the hand forward first," said Nader Sadeghi, a doctor at George Washington University and a Falls Church resident. "Maybe this will lead to a breakthrough."
Members of the Northern Virginia Muslim community said Khatami’s message of tolerance and reconciliation on the tour offers the Bush administration an opportunity to improve relations and strive for a peaceful solution to the nuclear standoff.
Khatami "is going through the back door and trying to spark some fire to create a dialogue that can bring this volatile situation under control," said Sheikh Rashid Lamptey, a deputy imam at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society.
American opponents of the hard-line regime in Tehran have criticized Khatami’s trip, arguing that it is little more than a ploy to avoid international sanctions and buy time while scientists develop nuclear weapons.
"It is a campaign of deception," said Kamran Beigi, spokesperson for the National Union for Democracy in Iran, which wants to replace Iran’s theocracy with a democratically elected government. "The purpose of the trip is to pretend that the Islamist regime is capable of reform."
IN HIS SPEECH to more than 250 local Muslims at the Crystal Marriott Gateway, Khatami urged the crowd to abide by the true teachings of their faith and live in harmony with their neighbors.
"Be an exemplar of unity and co-existence," the Shi’ite cleric said in Farsi. "Try yourself and your children to move up the ladder of social mobility."
Speaking three days before the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Khatami said two crimes were committed that day. The first was the killing of nearly 3,000 innocent people, and the second was that the crime was perpetrated in "the name of Islam."
"We Muslims should condemn this atrocity even more strongly," said Khatami, dressed in a black turban and gray robe, and speaking in front of an American and Iranian flag.
Khatami denounced suicide bombings, saying that "I have no doubt that anybody who creates hell for others cannot go to heaven."
He also criticized what he sees as a burgeoning "Islamaphobia" in America, buttressed by an "us and them" rhetoric that pits neighbors against each other.
In his speech, Khatami did not address Iran’s uranium enrichment program or specifically call for closer relations between Iran and America.
Unlike the night before, when several hundred people protested Khatami’s talk at the Washington National Cathedral, no demonstrators congregated outside the hotel, Arlington police spokesman John Lisle said.
KHATAMI CAME TO power in 1997 with the mantle of a reformer, who planned to expand freedoms of speech and curtail the influence of fundamentalist clerics.
But Iranians inside and outside the country were disappointed by Khatami’s inability to loosen stringent social controls and thaw relations between the nation and America.
"There is a sense that he did not accomplish as much as he could have," Sadeghi said.
For some in the audience, the speech was a reminder of the missed opportunity that Khatami’s presidency represented. Johari Abdul-Malik, an imam at Dar Al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, said the Clinton administration should have done more to engage Khatami, which would have boosted his popularity at home and helped him to implement difficult reforms.
Opponents of Iran’s theocracy said that under Khatami the regime still sponsored international terrorism and suppressed freedoms at home. More newspapers were closed during Khatami’s tenure, and more dissidents arrested and beaten, than under any other president, Beigi said.
"His own failed experiment showed the regime isn’t capable of reform," he added.
The question on the minds of many of those who attended Khatami’s series of speeches is what, if any, lasting effects the visit will have.
Johari, the imam at Dar Al-Hijrah, believes that Khatami’s expanded international prestige will increase his popularity at home and give strength to reformers.
Victor Tomseth, head of the political section of the embassy in Tehran when it was overrun by revolutionaries, said he has doubts the visit will be the first step toward improving relations between the two countries.
"During the Clinton administration we played Iran in soccer and there were great hopes that that would be a turning point," said Tomseth, who was held hostage for more than a year in Iran and now lives in McLean. "Obviously in retrospect it wasn’t."