Despite the growing dispute with Iran over its nuclear program, the Bush administration Tuesday granted a visa for a U.S. visit by former Iranian President Mohamad Khatami. He will be the most senior Iranian figure to visit the United States since the rupture in relations after Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.
There are no plans for Mr. Khatami to meet with U.S. government officials. But the decision to grant the visa, allowing him to attend an inter-faith religious dialogue in Washington next month, is nontheless a significant political gesture.
The former Iranian president is considered a moderate among Iranian clerics, and he advocated dialogue with the United States during his term in office, which ended last year.
The Bush administration had indicated some time ago that it would respond favorably to a request from leaders of the U.S. Episcopal church that Mr. Khatami be allowed to attend the September 7 event at Washington's National Cathedral, and the visa was formally issued Tuesday.
Mr. Khatami will also attend a United Nations conference in New York next week.
At a news briefing, State Department Deputy Spokesman Tom Casey said the visa was granted in part because of U.S. treaty obligations as the host country of the United Nations.
He brushed aside a suggestion that Mr. Khatami should be barred because of Iran's presence on the State Department's listed of state supporters of terrorism, and he said the visit could add to Iranian understanding of U.S. concerns on that and other issues:
"This is an opportunity in part for former President Khatami to hear the concerns of the American people. And I suspect that not only in New York, but certainly in the other places he travels to, he's going to get some tough questions from the American people who he does meet with," said Tom Casey. "And I think it's important that we recognize that we are an open society. We are willing to have a free exchange and a free debate over any and all ideas. I think it will be refreshing to have an Iranian leader face some of those kinds of questions."
The United States has had no diplomatic relations with Iran since the 1979 revolution, when Iranian militants seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held American diplomats and others hostage for more than a year.
There have been recent calls from some U.S. allies, former U.S. diplomats and members of Congress for the Bush administration to talk directly with Iran about their disagreements.
The administration in June said it was prepared to join with other permanent U.N. Security Council member countries and Germany in a political dialogue with Iran, provided it halted uranium enrichment and returned to negotiations over its nuclear program.
Iran thus far has refused the offer, and spokesman Casey said he was confident the Security Council would act on sanctions if Iran ignored the August 31 deadline it has set for a reply.
The decision to extend the visa to Mr. Khatami has been condemned by at least one U.S. Republican Senator, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania . The conservative legislator said despite Mr. Khatami's reputation as a reformer, he suppressed free speech and had thousands of protestors jailed during his tenure.
Santorum, in a statement, called the former president one of the chief propagandists of the Iranian regime and said at a minimum, authoritative U.S. political figures should be given an equal opportunity to address the Iranian people.