Despite initial legal objections from the Department of Homeland Security, the Bush administration yesterday granted a visa to Iran's new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to attend the opening next week of the U.N. General Assembly, according to the State Department.
Technically, Ahmadinejad was found ineligible for a visa under immigration laws that prohibit the issuance of a U.S. visa if there is "reason to believe" that the applicant has ever been involved in activity that supports or furthers terrorism, a senior State Department official said.
The Bush administration has been probing whether Ahmadinejad, a conservative elected in an upset in June, was involved in the 1979-81 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The student-led takeover resulted in the holding of 52 American hostages for 444 days.
The issue arose when half a dozen former hostages said they recognized Ahmadinejad as one of the student leaders, a charge denied by Tehran and disputed by several other former hostages. U.S. intelligence officials have since circulated a report that said he may actually have opposed the takeover because of fears at the time about the neighboring Soviet Union.
At the State Department's request, Homeland Security waived the ineligibility ruling to allow Ahmadinejad, as a head of state, to attend the largest gathering of world leaders ever, the department official said. At the same time, the official said, the administration will call on Iran to address U.S. queries about Ahmadinejad's activities during the embassy takeover and "clear up the remaining questions."
The United States has never turned down a visa request for a head of state -- including for Cuban President Fidel Castro -- to attend the opening session of the U.N. General Assembly, the official said.