On the eve of the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami condemned Osama bin Laden and suicide bombing but also defended groups such as Hizbullah for what he characterized as resistance against Israeli colonialism.
In a 30-minute speech given under tight security at Harvard University, Khatami repeatedly praised the concept of democracy but said American politicians, since World War II, have been infatuated with "world domination."
Khatami said he was one of the first world leaders to condemn "the barbarous acts" of September 11. Responding to a question from the audience about bin Laden, Khatami said he had two problems with the al Qaeda leader behind the attacks.
"First, because of the crimes he conducts," he said, "and second because he conducts them in the name of Islam, the religion which is a harbinger of peace and justice."
Khatami was met by protesters when he arrived at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Many angrily called on him to stand up for human rights.
Police estimated that 200 were in the crowd that blamed him for failing to stop government crackdowns on student activists in Tehran during his two terms in office.
Several human rights organizations say the crackdowns are believed to have been initiated by his rivals and approved by Iran's ruling Muslim clerics.
"His speech is on ethics and violence. It would be very bizarre if he came here to speak on ethics and violence and did not acknowledge and discuss his own record in Iran," said Eric Lesser, 21, president of Harvard College Democrats, which teamed with their Republican peers for the protest. "Students were arrested and thrown in prison for speaking their mind in the same way we're doing right now."
Khatami was considered a reformist during his two terms as president that ended last year. His visit to the United States has been criticized by many, particularly amid concerns about Iran's nuclear program.
There were no major problems, but police presence was heavy, Cambridge police spokesman Frank Pasquarello said. One man was detained, although it was not immediately clear why.
Harvard has been criticized for the timing of its invitation to Khatami, who is taking a two-week tour of the United States.
Khatami is the most senior Iranian to travel outside New York in the United States since Islamic fundamentalists seized the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and held Americans hostage for 444 days.
He was invited to the United States by the UN-sponsored Alliance of Civilizations, of which he is a founding member. The group strives to foster cross-cultural understanding between Western and Islamic states.