By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 22, 2006
Despite a looming diplomatic showdown with Iran over its nuclear program, the Bush administration has agreed to issue a visa to former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami to give a public address at the Washington National Cathedral next month, according to the Rev. Canon John L. Peterson, director of the Center for Global Justice and Reconciliation.
Khatami would be the most senior Iranian to visit Washington since Iran's 1979 revolution and the 1979-1981 takeover of the U.S. Embassy, which led Washington to sever relations with a country that had been one of its two closest allies in the Middle East.
The State Department said yesterday that it had not yet approved a visa for Khatami because he has not yet formally applied, which he must do outside Iran.
The White House decision to allow a prominent Iranian reformer to visit comes at a time of mounting tension with the new hard-line leadership in Tehran. Iran is expected to give its official answer today to a U.S.-backed package of incentives designed to get Tehran to give up uranium enrichment, a process in a peaceful nuclear energy program that can be converted to develop a nuclear weapon.
Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns said Friday that the United States is ready to push for new international sanctions on Iran at the United Nations if it does not accept the undisclosed package. Burns's office made the decision to grant the visa, according to the cathedral.
Khatami, a former minister of culture once purged by hard-liners, was a dark-horse presidential candidate in 1997 who led a sweeping upset that began a period of freer press, talk of political reform, cultural openings and encouragement of exchanges with the outside world. American tourists even returned to Iran.
In 1998, Khatami urged an end to the "wall of mistrust" between Iran and the United States. He also made an overture to the West by calling for a dialogue of civilizations, a proposal adopted by the United Nations when it declared 2001 the Year of Dialogue Among Civilizations.
But relations between the two countries have remained locked during the Clinton and Bush administrations over Iran's support for groups that rejected the Arab-Israeli peace process, its backing of militant groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, and its potential to subvert its energy program.
Evan Anderson, deputy director of the Center For Global Justice and Reconciliation, said the visit comes at a critical juncture in U.S.-Iran relations, particularly in light of the current crisis in the Middle East.
The Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd III, dean of the cathedral, said, "It will be an honor for the cathedral to provide a platform for President Khatami." He added: "President Khatami's commitment to a dialogue between civilizations and cultures is an important component in the peace process. This is much needed in the world today."
After serving two terms, the presidential limit, Khatami left office last year, and the clerical board that certifies candidates did not allow other reform candidates to run to replace him. He was succeeded by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a hard-liner, who has come into his own politically by capitalizing on tensions with the West over the nuclear issue.
Reformers have since been further sidelined, and some have been prosecuted. The new government has also ridiculed the Bush administration project to provide $75 million to foster democracy in Iran.
After leaving office, Khatami endorsed Iran's right to enrich uranium, which is legal under terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. But U.S. and European officials believe Iran is intent on secretly developing weapons capability.
In February, Khatami founded the International Institute for Dialogue Among Civilizations and Cultures, headquartered in Tehran. He plans to speak in Washington on the dialogue of civilizations and the role the three Abrahamic faiths -- Islam, Judaism and Christianity -- can play in the peace process. Plans call for the event, at the National Cathedral at 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 7, to be free and open to the public.
Before visiting Washington, Khatami is scheduled to attend a U.N. conference as part of the Alliance of Civilizations, led by the prime ministers of Spain and Turkey.