The State Department said Tuesday U.S. ambassadors abroad have been authorized to invite Iranian diplomats to embassy events celebrating the July 4 U.S. Independence Day holiday. The overture is a break from nearly 30 years of U.S. diplomatic practice.
Officials here depict the gesture as another step in an effort by the Obama administration to restore dialogue with Iran, with which the United States has not had formal diplomatic relations since the country's Islamic revolution in 1979.
State Department Spokesman Robert Wood, confirming a report by the New York Times, said the State Department late last week cabled U.S. chiefs of mission around the world authorizing them to invite Iranian diplomats and other officials to traditional July 4 embassy receptions.
Wood said the move is in keeping with the new administration's stated commitment to seek direct contact with Iran, including taking a seat at the table with other major powers in talks with the Tehran government on its nuclear program:
"Our policy is to try to reach out to the Iranian government and people. The President and the Secretary [of State] have made very clear that this is what we want to do," he said. "And certainly there are going to be other opportunities to reach out to Iran. We again still wait for Iran to reach back. And what I'm specially referring to is Iran informing us of whether they're going to respond positively to Javier Solana's invitation to attend the next P5+1 meeting."
The P5+1-the five permanent U.N. Security Council member countries and Germany-have offered Iran incentives to suspend uranium enrichment and return to negotiations over its nuclear program, which U.S. and European officials believe is at least partly weapons-related.
The Bush administration had refused to take a direct role in the talks unless Iran, which denies nuclear weapons ambitions, first halted enrichment. The new administration has said it is prepared to be a full participant.
Iranians had not been invited to U.S. embassy events since the American mission in Tehran was seized by protestors in 1979 and some 50 U.S. officials held hostage for more than a year.
U.S. diplomats have over the years been allowed to interact with Iranian counterparts in social situations, though spokesman Wood said a long-standing policy barring substantive discussions on such occasions remains in effect despite the State Department's July 4 overture.
A senior official who spoke to reporters said the Obama administration would like to see that restriction lifted soon, if there is what he termed "reciprocity" from the Iranian side.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arranged for Iran to be invited to an international conference on Afghanistan last March at the Hague. At that meeting, senior U.S. and Iranian officials had a brief conversation and a U.S. diplomatic note was passed to the Iranians about three Americans detained or missing in Iran.
Last month Iran released one of the three, Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi, who was convicted of spying but had her jail term suspended.