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KSG: Khatami Speech Will Go On

School says it will accommodate ex-Iranian leader despite loss of state support

The Kennedy School of Government pledged Tuesday evening to go forward with an event featuring former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, despite a wave of outcry from Massachusetts Governor W. Mitt Romney, two U.S. congressional leaders, and several Harvard students and professors.

Romney ordered all state agencies to refuse requests for support for Khatami’s upcoming trip to the Boston area on Tuesday, calling Harvard’s invitation to the former Iranian leader “a disgrace to the memory of all Americans who have lost their lives at the hands of extremists.”

Khatami, an Islamic cleric who led Iran from 1997 to 2005, is scheduled to speak on the “Ethics of Tolerance in the Age of Violence” and answer audience questions at the Kennedy School of Government’s John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum at 4 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets to the event are available via a
lottery that closes Wednesday night.


The announcement by Romney, who earned joint degrees in business and law from Harvard in 1974, means Khatami will not be provided a state police escort or VIP treatment when he travels through the area.


In a statement released Tuesday evening, the school said it is currently reviewing the security arrangements for the visit in light of the governor’s decision. The event will go forth as planned, the statement said, adding “safety will remain a paramount concern.”

“We can understand and often share [Romney’s] disagreement with the positions of Khatami,” the statement said. “The school nonetheless believes that active and open dialogue are a critical part of effective education and policy.”


Romney isn’t the only public official opposing Khatami’s visit to Cambridge.


A spokesman for Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., condemned Harvard for extending the invitation to Khatami, who the spokesman called a “propagandist…spreading his boldface untruths.”

“No college or university should have allowed him to speak,” Robert Traynham, the spokesman, said.


In a statement released to The Crimson, U.S. Rep Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R.-Fla., said that Khatami’s appearance at the Kennedy School is an “affront to all freedom loving people at Harvard and in the U.S.”


“I would hope that the incredibly talented students at Harvard would question Khatami on the many issues which prevent his country from becoming a responsible member of the world community,” she said in the statement.


Khatami’s appearance at Harvard has also been the subject of critical editorials in the Boston Herald and the New York Sun over the past week. The newspapers have likened the former Iranian president’s views to those outlined in the contentious “Israel Lobby” paper co-written by Belfer Professor of International Affairs Stephen M. Walt.

Khatami’s visit, the first trip of an Iranian leader to the university since the U.S. State Department severed ties with the country in 1979, has also met criticism from within the Harvard community.

Harvard Students for Israel released a statement over the weekend calling Khatami’s invitation “surprising and alarming” because of Khatami’s leadership during the 1999 arrest and torture of several hundred Tehran University student protestors.


“This man has no standing to speak about the ‘ethics of tolerance’ at a university,” the group’s president, Rebecca M. Rohr ’08, wrote in an e-mail. “This invitation is beneath the dignity of Harvard, which has always prided itself on moral uprightness and integrity.”


Khatami has criticized Israel in the past and once called it an “illegal state” and a “parasite in the heart of the Muslim world,” according to newspaper accounts from 2000 and 2001. He has also supported the militant Islamic group Hezbollah.


But Alexander L. Edelman ’07, chair of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, said that while Khatami is “no friend of Israel,” he supports the ex-Iranian leader’s right to speak.


“Khatami is a reformer, and although he wasn’t ultimately successful, that doesn't change that he's been a force for good in a country that has a pretty extremist, right wing government,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature Ruth R. Wisse called Khatami “the world’s exemplar of intolerance,” noting his role in the Tehran University crackdown.


“This degrades the standards of elemental decency, let alone abdicating the quest for truth,” Wisse wrote in an e-mail. “I do not think that Harvard should have given Khatami a pulpit unless it was to abjectly apologize.”


Martin Peretz, a longtime Harvard lecturer and Cabot House associate, said Khatami is "a front for a despicable dictatorial regime" and that the event would not provide an opportunity to rigorously challenge the former leader.

"Why don’t they invite him to a tough seminar?" he said, adding that he believes the often-crowded question-and-answer sessions at the Kennedy School are “bullshit.”


But Abbas Maleki, a former deputy foreign minister of Iran and senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, said Khatami had done much to extend democracy to Iran and would bring his expertise in the origins of violence to the Kennedy School.

“I propose to all of us that it’s better to enjoy from this opportunity and ask the questions that we have mind,” Maleki said.


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.


The ex-Iranian leader’s Harvard speech 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 will participate in a question-and-answer session following the speech as well as a small, invitation-only dinner and reception. The address will be delivered in Farsi and translated into English.


No formal protests of Khatami's visit had been publicly announced as of Wednesday afternoon.


The decision to invite Khatami was made in May, Kennedy School spokeswoman Melodie L. Jackson said, after professors at the school’s Belfer Center and the school’s dean, David T. Ellwood ’75, learned the former president would be traveling to the United States.


The school extended the invitation on behalf of Harvard under the belief that Khatami could further the discussion on improving relations between cultures, Jackson said.


In an interview last week, Interim President Derek C. Bok said he was not involved in the decision to invite Khatami and "knew nothing about it."


"I think to have a wide exchange of vews is very good," he added.


Jackson said Khatami is also expected to visit Georgetown University, Columbia University, and the University of Virginia during his visit.


—Staff writer Javier C. Hernandez can be reached at jhernand@fas.harvard.edu.