Confronting his most formidable military critics, President Mohammad Khatami on Tuesday told Iran's Revolutionary Guards that Iranians should demonstrate greater tolerance for diverse political and social views at home and in relations with the outside world.
His appeal came as President Clinton vetoed legislation imposing sanctions on countries or companies that provide Iran with technology that could be used to develop missiles. Congress is expected to easily override his veto.
Both developments underscored the significant obstacles facing the two presidents as they attempt to overcome their nations' years of mutual antagonism and distrust in an effort to normalize relations between Tehran and Washington.
In his address, Khatami did not refer directly to the United States, which last week launched a diplomatic overture to Tehran's reformist government. But he noted that the Islamic Republic seeks good relations with all countries.
"Islam calls for peace in a world based on mutual respect,' he told members of the Guards and the Basij volunteer forces at a commemoration in Tehran of the prophet Muhammad's death. The two organizations, considered the most militant arms of Iran's security forces, were originally ordered to preserve strict revolutionary values at home and export them abroad.
Khatami's remarks contrasted sharply with recent exhortations by Revolutionary Guards Commander Rahim Safavi, who threatened in April to "behead" would-be reformers. Safavi is appointed by Iran's supreme religious leader, putting the Guards outside the direct control of the president.
Tuesday's speech also came just two days after Khatami's defiant confrontation with conservative opponents in parliament over the impeachment of a leading reformer in his Cabinet. Khatami responded to the action by appointing the sacked minister to a new vice presidency.
Rather than succumbing to internal pressure, Khatami appears to be establishing a pattern of dealing firmly with challengers. U.S. and Iranian experts said that bodes well for the kind of political and diplomatic openings that Washington hopes his government will make over the next three years.
"Society will not progress through narrow-mindedness and by generating fear," Khatami said in his address. He described mercy, kindness and internal openness to participation as among the most important characteristics of the society the prophet Muhammad sought to create.
He made a special appeal for a gentler application of Islamic values, especially in dealing with youth. "In contemporary society, where young people are in the majority, the youth should be treated kindly and not with intimidation so that they could be attracted to Islam," he said.
In Washington, Clinton vetoed the Iran-related sanctions legislation on grounds that it does not provide the flexibility he needs at a time when the administration is trying to normalize relations with Tehran. White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry said Clinton is frustrated that Congress is shackling him on foreign policy.
"There is no flexibility in the act passed by Congress that allows the president to work through problems," McCurry said. The administration contends that congressional pressure is proving to be one of the biggest restraints on efforts at rapprochement with Iran.