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Khatami Criticizes Iran Clerics Who Admire Taleban - 2001-09-02

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami is publicly criticizing hard-line Muslim clerics for their admiration of Afghanistan's ruling hard-line Taleban. The Iranian president wants to change international opinion of Iran and Islam.

On Friday an Iranian hard-line cleric told his worshippers in Tehran the Taleban in Afghanistan has managed to restore security to the Afghan people.

The cleric then asked why Iran could not do the same.

The question drew a strong response from Iranian President Mohammad Khatami just a day later.

President Khatami said, during a news conference, admiration of the hard-line Taleban was not acceptable. He said Iran does not want a Taleban-style Islam or security.

He suggested those who delivered such remarks during Friday's prayers had insulted the late Ayatollah Khomeini, and said their stance is unacceptable.

Abdel Wahed Ashour is an Iran expert for the Middle East News Agency. He says Mr. Khatami's criticism, although expected, appears to mark a new era in Iranian politics.

"Before, there was subtle criticism. But it has never been that strong, and this is due," he said, "to a lot of things that have happened in Iran. One of the most important is, what looks like the reformists in control of the government. In addition, Mr. Khatami's landslide victory in the elections would appear to have given him power in the face of the hard-liners."

Mostly Shiite Muslim Iran opposes the Taleban's purist interpretation of Islam, which calls for, among other things, public floggings to crack down on social corruption.

The hard-liners say the punishments, for such things as consuming alcohol, are necessary if Iran is to avoid immorality.

President Khatami questioned that logic, saying it wasn't clear if such punishments bring positive results. He said the punishments portray a false image of Islam abroad, and should be set aside.

Iran expert Abdel Wahed Ashour says the president is attempting to re-define international public opinion of Islam.

"This is not a surprise, that Mr. Khatami would attack the hard-liners in Iran for expressing their admiration for the Taleban. This way," he said, "the president is presenting himself to the international public as a reformist cleric, presenting an enlightened Islam, and working on ways to improve Islam's image."

In the interim, the president called for greater cooperation between his reformist parliament and the hard-line judiciary.