Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami is on a private visit to Washington, where he will give a major address today. His visit comes as the Bush administration is trying to gain international support for sanctions on Iran for its refusal to stop enriching uranium.
Mohammad Khatami is the highest-ranking Iranian to visit Washington since the 1979 revolution, when Islamic fundamentalists seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held Americans hostage.
Former President Khatami is visiting the United States at the invitation of private organizations. Washington has a policy of no contact with the Iranian government. But the U.S. State Department says Americans outside government should take every opportunity to talk with Iranians.
"I wish that the same openness that President Khatami is going to encounter in America would be the right of Iranian citizens in their own country," says Alberto Fernandez, a State Department public diplomacy official. He told VOA-TV's Persian Service that the United States wants to be more open to the Iranian people, including people with whom Washington does not agree.
"We are an open society. We want to welcome more Iranians. We want to see more Iranians visit the United States. We believe that people should be able to speak out freely. Unfortunately, people in Iran can't speak out freely, but Iranians who come to America can speak out freely."
Mr. Khatami was Iran's president from 1997 to 2005. He was widely viewed as a moderate who supported freer news media and political reform.
Foreign policy experts say the Bush administration is signaling that although it will isolate hard-liners in Iran such as current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, it wants to reach out to reformers.
Geoffrey Kemp is an international security expert at the Nixon Center, a research group in Washington, D.C. Mr. Kemp told us, "He [Khatami] is the president who called for a dialogue of civilizations. He's the president who in some ways did reach out to us while he was president. Unfortunately, he could never follow through because he didn't have full power."
Kemp says Mr. Khatami remains influential behind the scenes in Tehran and is likely to report back on what he learns about U.S.-Iranian relations.
But the former president's visit may do little to relieve tensions between Washington and Tehran over its nuclear program. The Bush administration says it expects all members of the U.N. Security Council to live up to their agreement to sanction Iran.
Tehran disregarded the council's August 31st deadline to suspend uranium enrichment. China and Russia have said that sanctioning Iran may be counterproductive.
Kemp says if the U.N. Security Council fails to support sanctions against Iran, the next step may be pressure from what he calls a "coalition of the willing." "Where the United States, the European Union, and possibly Japan agree to a number of economic measures -- which in the case of the U.S. are already in place, in the case of the others would now be put in place -- and they could be quite serious."
President Bush says the world's free nations will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. Iran insists it is enriching uranium for peaceful energy.