The State Department said Wednesday that U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad did not have advance permission for a joint appearance last week in Switzerland with the Iranian Foreign Minister. The U.S. diplomat and the Iranian minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, appeared together at a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

Officials say the U.S. envoy did not get advance clearance for the appearance with Mottaki and would have been told not to do so had he asked. But they are nonetheless downplaying the political importance of the episode.

Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq, surprised the Bush administration when he appeared beside the Iranian Foreign Minister Saturday at a Davos panel discussion on Iranian foreign policy.

Administration officials were unaware of the incident until video of the two diplomats sitting together was circulated Tuesday on the Internet.

In a talk with reporters, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack declined comment on a New York Times report that White House officials are angry over Khalilzad's participation.

However he suggested the ambassador's interaction with Mottaki went beyond standing policy under which U.S. diplomats are told to "be polite but move on" if they encounter Iranian officials in social situations.

The spokesman said Khalilzad had no policy discussion with Mottaki, and that if Iran does want to engage on substance, the door is open provided it meets international demands to halt uranium enrichment.

"We haven't done these sorts of things in the past and I don't expect that we will, absent some agreement from the Iranian that they are going to suspend their nuclear enrichment and reprocessing-related activities," McCormack said. "There are channels through which we communicate with the Iranians. You have the Swiss channel, you have the Ryan Crocker channel that is available, and there's a potential secretary of state channel, should they choose to suspend their enrichment-related activities."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said the United States is ready for an open-ended political dialogue with Iran if it stops work on enrichment, which U.S. officials believe will give Iran the capability to build nuclear weapons.

U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker has had meetings with his Iranian counterpart in Baghdad but they have been limited to Iraqi security issues. The Swiss government acts as an intermediary for other diplomatic exchanges between the two countries, which have not had formal relations since 1980.

Khalilzad, an Afghan-American, had contacts with Iranian officials on Afghanistan-related issues when he served as the U.S. ambassador in Kabul from 2003 to 2005.

A spokesman for Khalilzad said he had no separate meeting, conversation or even a handshake with Mottaki in Davos.

Khalilzad will be spearheading U.S. contacts in the Security Council in the coming days on a new sanctions resolution against Iran, the third such measure since late 2006, because of its nuclear program.

Secretary Rice and other big-power foreign ministers approved the draft resolution last week in Berlin. It reportedly would ban trade with Iran in so-called "dual use" technology - having both military and civilian applications, and authorize inspections of air and sea cargo bound for Iran.