In his 30-minute address under heavy security, the Muslim cleric also defended the militant Lebanese group Hezbollah as a legitimate resistance movement fighting for the “territorial integrity” of Lebanon.
Khatami, who was president of Iran from 1997 to 2004, was met by angry protestors who called on him to apologize for human rights abuses committed by the government under his watch. Police estimated that 200 protestors gathered outside the Kennedy School of Government.
But inside the forum, Khatami faced a relatively polite audience, a marked contrast to previous controversial visitors.
Critics have lambasted Khatami’s failure to act when several hundred protestors at Tehran University were arrested and tortured during a wave of protests in July 1999.
In a statement on Friday, the Harvard College Democrats called on Khatami to condemn the abuses and the actions of Khatami’s successor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, during the speech.
Khatami did not directly apologize for Iran’s human rights abuses.
“I think that the speech left a lot more questions unanswered than answered,” said Eric P. Lesser ’07, the Dems president. “It was clear from the speech that President Khatami certainly talks in ways that make him seem like a reformer.”
Khatami’s trip to the US, the first of such a high-ranking official since Washington cut ties with Iran in the aftermath of the 1979 hostage crisis, comes as the United States is seeking punitive action against Iran for failing to meet a United Nations deadline on suspending its uranium enrichment program.
Khatami was at the country’s helm in 2002 when Iran, along with North Korea and Iraq, was named part of an “axis of evil” by President George W. Bush for pursuing nuclear weapons.
Khatami briefly addressed Iran’s nuclear program, saying that he believes that through negotiations Iran would sign the additional protocol allowing, among other things, snap inspections.
Khatami, widely considered a reformer in Iran, was often met with applause from the Kennedy School audience.
Khatami began his speech by tracing back American history to its Puritan roots and the desire to create a “cradle of liberty.” But he condemned America for acquiring “imperialist” and “colonialist” aspirations, saying it must not fall into a sense of “false pride.”
“In all honesty, the West needs spirituality more than ever before in its history,” Khatami said.
Khatami, who condemned Osama Bin Laden and those who carry out terrorist acts in the name of Islam, also criticized the US for its “double standard” when it came to violence.
“We cannot and should not justify a state’s total war against a defenseless population on the basis of its sovereignty or international recognition but condemning the violence perpetrated by that population as barbaric and inhumane,” he said.
Khatami’s remarks were followed by a question and answer session where a number of students and members of the community asked him about his position on Israel.
Responding to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reported comments that Israel should be “wiped out from the map,” Khatami said that he has “never wanted the elimination of a person or nation from the international sphere.”
“A nation by the name of Palestine has been eliminated from the map,” Khatami added.
In response to another question, Khatami also justified his country’s use of capital punishment for acts of homosexuality, but said that the conditions for execution are so strict that they are “virtually impossible to meet.”
“Homosexuality is a crime in Islam and crimes are punishable,” Khatami said. “And the fact that a crime could be punished by execution is debatable.”
The audience responded with silence to his remark.
Though Khatami spoke mostly in Persian, he ended his speech in English, condemning again the Sept. 11 attacks and sharing his condolences with the victims.
In the weeks leading up to yesterday’s speech, many criticized Harvard for inviting Khatami to campus.
Massachusetts Governor W. Mitt Romney called Harvard’s invitation of Khatami “a disgrace to the memory of all Americans who have lost their lives at the hands of extremists” and said state taxpayers should not fund any part of his visit.
Romney announced on Tuesday that he would not allow any state agencies—including state police—to provide support for the event. Yesterday’s event was secured by Harvard and Cambridge police as well as the US State Department.
Khatami’s speech was moderated by Dillon Professor of Government Graham T. Allison and co-sponsored by the Institute of Politics and the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, which Allison directs.
—Javier C. Hernandez contributed to the reporting of this article.
—Staff writer Claire M. Guehenno can be reached at email@example.com.