By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 7, 2010; A16
UNITED NATIONS -- In a highly unusual move, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki hosted a dinner Thursday for the 15 members of the U.N. Security Council, including a senior U.S. diplomat, at the Iranian mission's sumptuous Fifth Avenue townhouse in New York, according to Security Council diplomats.
The Iranian invitation appeared to be part of a campaign to counter U.S. and European efforts to secure support in the Security Council for a fourth round of sanctions against Tehran. It followed a public relations effort this week by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- including appearances on several American television programs -- to show that Iran's nuclear program is aimed at producing energy, not nuclear weapons.
The United States was represented at the dinner, but not by its top diplomat, Susan E. Rice. Alejandro D. Wolff, the second-ranking ambassador at the U.S. mission to the United Nations, attended instead. France was represented by its No. 2 envoy, and Britain sent its No. 3; both countries' top diplomats were out of town. Most other countries sent their top envoys.
The United States has long restricted diplomatic contacts with Iran, allowing for limited contacts to deal with regional conflicts such as Afghanistan and Iraq. Zalmay Khalilzad, President George W. Bush's envoy to Kabul, Baghdad and the United Nations, met frequently with senior Iranians to discuss Afghanistan and Iraq, but he got in trouble for appearing in a debate at the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, with Mottaki in January 2008. Still, he said, "the clash of ideas" is smart diplomacy.
The Obama administration has been more willing to directly engage the Iranians. In October, William J. Burns, the third-ranking official at the State Department, held direct talks with Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, in an 18th-century villa in Geneva.
But relations have been strained since Ahmadinejad launched a post-election crackdown last summer on Iranian opposition protesters. At the height of the crisis, the State Department rescinded invitations to Iranian diplomats to attend Fourth of July parties at U.S. embassies around the world.
A U.S. official said before Thursday's dinner that the United States had low expectations that the gathering would lead to a diplomatic breakthrough but that it was willing to give the Iranians a chance to make their case.
"We view this as an opportunity for Iran to speak to its international obligations," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "We go into this clear-eyed. We don't have any indication they are willing to live up to their obligations."
The Iranian invitation came as the United States and other permanent members of the Security Council are engaged in complex closed-door negotiations on a resolution that would sanction Iran for refusing to halt its enrichment of uranium.
The United States maintained that its presence at the dinner should not be interpreted as a sign that it is backing away from sanctions. "This is a dual-track strategy of engagement on one hand and pressure on the other," the U.S. official said.