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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami regrets the 1979 U.S. hostage crisis and considers the Holocaust a "historical fact," according to an interview published on Friday.
"I believe the Holocaust is the crime of Nazism. But it is possible that the Holocaust, which is an absolute fact, a historical fact, would be misused. The Holocaust should not be, in any way, an excuse for the suppression of Palestinian rights," he told Time Magazine.
Regarded as a reformist during his presidency from 1997 to 2005, Khatami was largely stymied by powerful conservative clerics. His hard-line successor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has reinstated conservative domestic policies, while issuing threats to destroy Israel and denying that the Holocaust of six million Jews took place.
As for the 1979 hostage crisis, when student radicals seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans for 444 days, Khatami called it a reaction to decades of U.S. exploitation of Iran.
"I regret the hostage crisis, hostage-taking. And I sympathize with the hostages and their families for their loss and their hurt. But this was [also] a revolutionary reaction to half a century of the U.S. taking Iran hostage."
Khatami is the most prominent Iranian to visit the United States, outside of the United Nations' New York headquarters, in decades. Ahmadinejad spoke at the U.N. General Assembly last year and has requested a visa to do so again this year.
The State Department said it had not yet decided on the visa, but rejection is unlikely given American obligations as host nation for the U.N.
Khatami's U.S. visit, which also includes stops in New York, Chicago and Harvard University, has been controversial, in light of U.S. accusations the Islamic republic is pursuing nuclear weapons, sponsors "terrorism," and arms Hizbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.
At a news conference in Washington on Thursday, Khatami warned the United States against threatening Iran. While urging a dialogue among civilizations, he said there was too much mistrust for Washington and Tehran to talk now.
In response, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters, "the place to start when talking about the discourse of threats is with his own president, President Ahmadinejad, in threatening to wipe the state of Israel off the map."
Khatami told Time he gets "really upset" with President George W. Bush's designation of Iran as part of an "axis of evil" and he praised America as a "great and big country."
"Conceit and pride, or maybe arrogance" led the United States to invade Iraq and the American "occupation should end as soon as possible," he added.
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