By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 24, 2007
UNITED NATIONS, March 23 -- Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Friday canceled plans to visit New York to address the U.N. Security Council on the eve of a Saturday vote to impose new sanctions on Tehran, according to U.S. and Iranian officials.
Iranian officials said Friday that the Iranian leader called off the visit because U.S. officials had presented his air crew with visas too late to make the trip. They said that Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki would attend the council meeting in his place.
But U.S. officials challenged that account, saying that they had provided the Iranian president and his delegation with a total of 75 visas in time for them to make the trip. They said Tehran had fabricated a crisis over the visas to spare their leader the embarrassment of seeing his country condemned for refusing to halt its uranium enrichment program.
"Any suggestion that visa issues are the cause of President Ahmadinejad's decision not to travel to New York is false," State Department spokesman Tom Casey said. "Rather, it would appear that he is unwilling to stand before the council and take the heat for his continued defiance of the international community."
The visa dispute unfolded as ambassadors from the 15-nation council reached agreement in principle on a resolution that would ban Iranian arms sales and freeze the assets of 28 Iranian individuals and entities, including several commanders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The accord, which still requires the approval of the council's leadership, requires Iran to halt its enrichment of uranium and reprocessing of nuclear fuel within 60 days or face additional penalties.
The council has scheduled a meeting Saturday afternoon to vote on the resolution.
The council's major powers had reached agreement on the resolution last week, but they faced resistance from three of the council's nonpermanent members, South Africa, Qatar and Indonesia. Friday's pact was reached after the United States and its European partners offered some final concessions to secure their support. They added provisions that highlighted the importance of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East and the role of the International Atomic Energy Agency in resolving the nuclear dispute with Iran.