By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 25, 2009
So much for "hot dog diplomacy."
The White House announced yesterday that it had withdrawn invitations to Iranian diplomats to attend Fourth of July festivities at U.S. embassies around the world. The move is the first tangible penalty the United States has imposed against the Iranian government in the wake of the brutal crackdown of demonstrations over the disputed presidential elections.
The United States and Iran have not had diplomatic relations for nearly three decades, but Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton recently authorized the invitations as a way of reaching out to the Islamic republic. U.S. officials said no Iranian diplomats thus far had responded to the invitations.
"July 4th allows us to celebrate the freedom and the liberty we enjoy," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said. "Freedom of speech. Freedom of religion. Freedom to assemble peacefully. Freedom of the press. So I don't think it's surprising that nobody's signed up to come."
Gibbs added: "Given the events of the past many days, those invitations will no longer be extended."
A senior administration official said the decision to rescind the invitation was made yesterday, a day after the president sidestepped questions at a news conference about what consequences the Iranian government will face.
In a cable sent to U.S. embassies yesterday, Clinton wrote: "Unfortunately, circumstances have changed, and participation by Iranian diplomats would not be appropriate in light of the unjust actions that the President and I have condemned."
The invitations were originally intended as a way to break down the diplomatic walls between Iran and the United States, but thus far the administration's outreach effort has yielded slim results. President Obama also sent video greetings to Iran's leadership on the Persian New Year and joined in an invitation with other major powers to restart negotiations on Iran's nuclear program. Gibbs said that invitation still stands, though Iran has not formally responded.
Patrick Clawson, deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said he was not surprised that Iranian diplomats did not accept, because in the "protocol-rich profession of diplomacy," it would be odd to celebrate the national day of a country with which there are no diplomatic relations. But he said targeting "working-level professional diplomats" was not much of a symbolic gesture, and instead the administration should urge European countries to begin denying visas for top government officials and their spouses.
U.S. officials, meanwhile, declined to deny a report in the Washington Times yesterday that the Obama administration last month sent a letter to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Shiite cleric who oversees the government under Iran's quasi-theocratic system. Khamenei, who has the title supreme leader, is viewed as the ultimate decision-maker on Iran's nuclear program and its relations with the West, and U.S. officials have made little secret of their desire to deal directly with him on such matters.
"We communicate with Iran in a number of different ways," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said. "What we've been interested all along in is a substantive dialogue on important issues like nuclear weapons, export of terror, human rights, the kinds of human rights violations that we're seeing in Iran right now. The Iranians have not responded to any of these communications."
But regarding any reported letter, he said, "on this occasion, we're not going to get into the details of private diplomatic correspondence."
The Times quoted an Iranian source as saying that the letter -- sent between May 4 and 10 -- laid out the prospect of "cooperation in regional and bilateral relations" and a resolution of the dispute over Iran's nuclear program. Khamenei said in a speech last week that he had received a letter from the administration.