By Safa Haeri

PARIS 12 Dec. (IPS) In an unprecedented rebuke to his superior clerics who insists that hejab, or the Islamic dress, is mandatory for Muslim women, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami for the first time said that women were free to wear it or not.Mohammad Khatami, le 23 juillet 2002 à Kuala Lumpur | AFP - Jimin Lai

Mr. Khatami made the surprising comment in an interview published Friday by the influential French daily "Le Monde" dated 13 December to a statement attributed to one of his aides, saying that Mrs. Ebadi had "the right to not wear the veil outside Iran".

"Wearing the veil is a tradition that everybody respects in Iran. That said, and I have told to Mrs. Ebadi that as a Moslem woman, it would have been better that she wears the veil to receive her price. But everyone is free of his choices", Mr. Khatami told "Le Monde".

Receiving her prestigious award from the Nobel Academy on 10 December, the 56 years-old human rights campaigner was dressed in western outfits, wearing no scarf.

Iranian conservative press have strongly criticised Mrs. Ebadi for not covering her hairs and one of them named her "Sharon Ebadi", echoing some conservative clerics accusing the Nobel Academy to have awarded the Iranian woman under pressures from the United States and Zionist circles.

However, in all interviews and press conferences, Mrs. Ebadi, a respected and courageous lawyer fighting for the equal rights for women, has always reiterated and repeated that as a laws abiding person, in Iran, where all women, regardless of their nationalities or religions, are required to cover their bodies, she follows the laws of the regime but outside, she is not oblige to.

On orders from the authorities, the media belittled the event, announcing the news in few lines while the leader-controlled Radio and Television broadcast the event very briefly.

When asked by the paper’s correspondents Afsane Bassirpour and Clair Trean if he think that the choice of Mrs. Ebadi for the Nobel was a "political choice" and a reward to "a political dissident?, Mr. said the award was "very important", a 180 degree U-turn from an earlier statement in which he had described the Nobel Peace as something "not important" and bestowed on "political grounds".

"The Nobel Prize is very important in all domains; it is obvious that every Iranian must be proud to know that another Iranian, especially an Iranian woman, got this Prize. This said, more important than the prize of the peace is peace itself. Our world is a world of war, a world of terror and violence, a world of illness and famine, a world of discrimination", he replied when observed that the welcome reserved to the laureate in Iran was "tepid".

"Politic is always an important factor. She continues her work, a work that, I hope, she would be able to pursue freely in Iran. I also know that she had some problems", Mr. Khatami said, referring to letters and telephones by the conservatives-controlled pressure groups threatening to kill her, thugs that disrupted a conference she was to address the all female Zahra University last week in Tehran.

He said he already gave some "very firm" instructions to both the Interior and Intelligence ministries to make sure that she can work in all security and in "appropriate conditions".

Touching on the sensitive nuclear issue, Mr. Khatami confirmed that Iran had accepted the Additional Protocol to the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and since the government has also approved it and decided that one date is fixed with the agreement of the AIEA, "so obstacle doesn't exist anymore for the Protocol to be signed".

However, he warned, without emphasising, that if one wants to turn the matter into a political case, "things could change".

"We count on the Europeans who came to see us, on good faith, so that this problem is settled in the framework of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Shortly, the Parliament is going to tackle the case, there is not any problem", he added.

Last month, Iran, under pressures from both the United States and the European Union, accepted a demand by the IAEA Board of Directors to sign the Protocol that would allow international nuclear inspectors and experts to visit all Iranian nuclear installations, projects and sites at will and without the slightest restriction from the Iranian authorities.

The acceptance came at the end of a visit paid on October to Iran by the foreign affairs ministers of Britain, France and Germany, warning Tehran that if it does not comply, the matter would be reported to the United Nations Security Council for imposing economic sanctions.

Mr. Khatami repeated that Iran doesn't wish to have nuclear weapons, as claimed by Washington and Tel Aviv, saying, "We only want the atomic energy and technology for pacific and civilian purposes".

Coming to domestic problems, Mr. Khatami acknowledged that under present Iranian theocracy, the president is "confronted to some limitations" that he did not specified.

"The Islamic revolution has proposed a popular democracy, something that is not easy. On our part, we have to adapt democracy to our cultural principles. No power could last if it does not come from the will of the people that must have the right to change the power, if it thinks it as being necessary, but without resorting to violence. And on that point, there is no difference between a secular and a religious democracy. That principle is also the base of our reforms", he pointed out in remarks full of contradictions.

Nevertheless, when asked if he had been able to carry out the reforms he had promised during his first electoral campaign on May 1997, he candidly agreed that "given the circumstances, we did what we could!".

About the forthcoming legislative elections due next February, exercise that most Iranian political pundits predicts both the defeat of the reformists and the desertion of voters, mostly the young ones, Mr. Khatami expressed the hope to see the people going to the polls "with enthusiasm".

"As far as we are concerned, we would accept the will of the people. In democracy, one has to accept victory as we as defeat. But anyhow, the people’s process towards democracy would continue, with or without us", he noted.

Asked bout a possible extradition by the Iraqi provisory government of the members of the outlawed Mojahedeen Khalq Organisation to Iran and if it is true that Iran has the intention to extradite members of al-Qa’eda network, the lamed Iranian President said Iran has already arrested 130 members of the terrorist group.

"In fact, we are ready to extradite some of them to their country of origin. Those who have committed some crimes in Iran will be judged in Iran and the other extradited to their country of origin. There is not any place in Iran for al-Qa’eda, no place for any terrorist, for those that act against the peace in the world", he said, adding:

"With regard to the Mojahedeen, I think that most these young people who are in Iraq are not criminals and can come back in their country. As the President of the Republic I announce it: those are welcome in Iran. Those that have blood on their hands must be judged in an equitable way and according to the law".

In a statement, the American-installed Provisory Council of Iraq has decided to arrest all the remaining members of the Mojahedeen Khalq in Iraq and hand them to Iran, a decision that is strongly rejected and denounced by the organisation, calling on Washington to prevent it on humanitarian grouns, insisting that if returned to Iran, they would be executed.

At the height of the power of the toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hoseyn, the group maintained an army of between 5.000 to 10.000, many of them women, under arms, fighting Iran alongside Iraqi troops and also helping Iraqi intelligence to crush the Iraqi Kurds and Shi’ites, hence their profound hate of the Mojahedeens.  ENDS KHATAMI INTERVIEW 121203

Editor's note: Mr. Khatami gave the interview in Geneva where he was taking part to the Communication Summit.