Former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami's visit to Harvard University on Sunday continues to generate controversy, including Gov. Mitt Romney's announcement that he will deny any state resources to assist Khatami during his time here.
Romney, a potential 2008 Republican presidential candidate, cited Khatami's support of the terror organization Hezbollah and his call for the destruction of Israel in denying taxpayer money to support the trip, whose Harvard stop falls on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Romney's move would leave Khatami without an official police escort or other VIP perks while in the Boston area. Yesterday, however, Boston agreed to provide Khatami with a police escort, after being asked by the U.S. State Department. Mayor Thomas Menino said the city agreed to the request "in the interest of general public safety."
Romney received his law and business degrees from Harvard in 1975, but has been an especially vocal and critical alum of late.
"State taxpayers should not be providing special treatment to an individual who supports violent jihad and the destruction of Israel," Romney said in a statement.
"Khatami pretends to be a moderate, but he is not," the governor said. "My hope is that the United States will find and work with real voices of moderation inside Iran. But we will never make progress in the region if we deal with wolves in sheep's clothing."
Romney said Harvard's invitation to Khatami was "a disgrace to the memory of all Americans who have lost their lives at the hand of extremists, especially on the eve of the five-year anniversary of 9/11."
It's that timing of the speech by Khatami, president of Iran from 1997-2005, that initially drew criticism and has local Harvard grads critical of their alma mater.
"The timing couldn't be worse," said state Sen. Steven Panagiotakos of Lowell, a member of Harvard's Class of 1982. "It's pretty insensitive to 9/11 families to have him then. And quite frankly, if such an institution is going to have one side, they should have the other, too. It's almost like anything mainstream or middle-America has become marginalized. It seems it's always the extreme view that gets promoted."
Harvard said in a statement the visit "seemed very much in the tradition of the free exchange of ideas that is a central part to the life of the university." Harvard officials were "surprised and disappointed" by Romney's action.
"They can call it academic freedom," said Panagiotakos, "but if that's all they're putting forth, they're promoting it. When you don't allow the ROTC program on campus and bring in a known terrorist, that becomes problematic."
Despite tense relations between Iran and the U.S. over its refusal to suspend Iranian enrichment in its nuclear program (which Khatami oversaw while in office), Khatami is visiting at the invitation of private organizations, not the government.
The Bush administration this week asked Congress for $5 million to pay for visits by 200 Iranian professionals and foreign-language teachers to help open cultural exchange efforts.
Khatami's visit included participation in a United Nations conference earlier in the week, and stops in Illinois and Washington, D.C.'s National Cathedral.
Steve Beati, a Lowell-based real estate developer and 1987 Harvard graduate, said that "just on the surface of it, it's not a good idea to have someone like that on the eve of the 9/11 anniversary. If he did sponsor terror or was involved in the torture of his own people, that's not really the best person to be bringing in."
Henri Marchand, a 1991 Harvard graduate and program director for the "Sunrise" morning program on UMass Lowell's WUML-FM, echoed those sentiments.
"I have a curiosity as to what he's going to say on the eve of the anniversary of that terrible day. And also, if he's a terrorist supporter and someone who holds those views, not to infringe on everybody's right to free speech, but why have a single speaker with one view on the eve of that. To me, it doesn't sound right.
"I know they're trying to bring in speakers from all viewpoints, but you've got to have a balance, especially with something like this. 9/11 is still a raw wound in this country."
Only Beati supported Romney's state-resources boycott.
"I think I'd support that," said Beati. "Someone who tortured people or was involved in terrorism is not someone who needs state protection."
"The man is a former head of state," said Panagiotakos. "So I'd think you have to provide some security protection. And remember, it's not just for him, it's for everyone else, too."
"It may sound great. But not giving him protection puts at risk the other individuals, if there is risk," agreed Marchand. "There's the issue of public safety in general. If he's allowed to come and there's some sort of threat, there should be security."
Khatami will speak on "Ethics of Tolerance in the Age of Violence."
Panagiotakos noted that Harvard "was originally set up as a school to train pastors. When something like this happens, it reminds you how far afield they've gone from what their original mission is. John Harvard is probably rolling over in his grave so many times, he's creating a tunnel down there."