By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 5, 2009
TEHRAN, Feb. 4 -- Iran did not issue visas for a group of U.S. female badminton players it had invited to compete in the country in events starting Friday, the Iranian Foreign Ministry said Wednesday, citing the "time-consuming process" of handling such applications.
"They will not participate in the competition," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hassan Qashqavi said during his weekly news conference.
The Iranian Badminton Federation, a part of Iran's Physical Education Organization, which is headed by Vice President Mohammad Aliabadi, had invited the eight players, along with four coaches and managers, to participate in a tournament during celebrations to mark the 30th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution.
"We are disappointed and hope the Americans will forgive us," said Zahra Tayyebin, head of the Badminton Federation's public relations office. "They should know that the Badminton Federation did all the necessary follow-ups for the visas."
The Obama administration said it was mystified by the visa refusal, especially because the president and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have expressed a willingness to engage with Tehran. The badminton team's visit would have been the first cultural exchange under the new administration, but it was arranged as part of a concerted effort by the Bush administration since 2006 to promote cultural, medical and athletic contacts between two countries that have not had diplomatic relations for three decades.
The United States cut ties with Tehran during the 1979-1981 hostage crisis, in which a group of radical students held 52 Americans captive for 444 days after storming the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
"This is a very unfortunate situation," State Department spokesman Robert A. Wood said Wednesday.
"You know, as the secretary and others have said, when the Iranians unclench that fist, there will be a hand waiting to greet them," Wood added. "We are very interested in trying to improve relations between the American people and the Iranian people, and this is not a good step forward in terms of trying to promote people-to-people exchanges."
On Monday, the U.S. State Department had said it hoped to reciprocate the Iranian Badminton Federation's invitation by inviting Iran's national team to the United States in July.
Since January 2007, more than 75 Iranian athletes have taken part in wrestling, weightlifting, water polo and table tennis competitions in the United States, while 32 American athletes, including 20 wrestlers, have visited Iran, the Ettemaad newspaper, which is critical of the government, wrote Wednesday.
A total of 250 Iranian artists, athletes and doctors have visited the United States since the program started, according to the State Department.
Staff writer Glenn Kessler in Washington contributed to this report.