PRAGUE, August 31, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami has arrived in the United States ahead of a September 5-6 UN conference. But Khatami, whose reform platform vaulted him into the presidency in 1997, is also scheduled to deliver a speech in the U.S. capital and make a trip to Chicago. He is the most senior Iranian official to visit the United States outside the strict framework of a UN event in more than two decades. U.S. officials issued Khatami his visa on August 29, just two days ahead of a UN Security Council deadline to curb Iran's nuclear activities that Tehran has dismissed as illegitimate.
In the 25 years since the Islamic revolution and the accompanying embassy hostage crisis, the United States has issued visas for Iranian officials solely for the purpose of attending events at the UN in New York.
Khatami's visit is unlikely to lead to any breakthrough in relations between the United States, which Iranian revolutionaries described as the "Great Satan," and the country that U.S. President George W. Bush called a member of the "axis of evil."
Washington has made it clear that there are no plans for Khatami to meet with U.S. officials.
But the decision to issue Khatami a visa is seen as an important political gesture nevertheless.
Rutgers University professor Houshang Amirahmadi is the head of the nongovernmental American-Iranian Council. He says he thinks the development is positive, even if symbolic.
"He is the former president of a country that has not talked to the U.S. and does not talk [to it] now either," Amirahmadi says. "This move is being formed in the framework of dialogue between the American and Iranian nations, and from this view it is positive. But I'm not sure it will affect relations between the two countries."
Khatami's visit comes with tensions high between Tehran and Washington over Iran's refusal to abandon sensitive nuclear work by an August 31 deadline set by the UN Security Council. The recent conflict in Lebanon and Iran's support for Hizballah have further soured relations, as have starkly differing views on Iraq.
With expectations low, some are suggesting Khatami's trip could at least serve to open a new channel of communications.
Gary Sick, a professor of Middle East politics at New York's Columbia University, was the principal White House aide on the region during Iran's 1979 revolution and the hostage crisis that followed.
He tells RFE/RL that the U.S. decision to extend a visa to Khatami is a "hopeful sign." But Sick dismisses speculation that the visit might have any major impact on Iranian-U.S. relations.
"Khatami is not the center of the decision-making process in Iran," Sick says. "I think the people he would talk to while he's here -- basically church people, civil-society groups, and so forth -- are not going to make the difference."
Exchange Of Views
U.S. State department spokesman Tom Casey on August 29 described the visit as an opportunity for Khatami to hear the concerns of Americans.
"I suspect not only in New York, but certainly in the other places he travels to, [Khatami] is going to get some tough questions from the American people whom he does meet with," Casey said. "And I think it's important that we recognize that we are an open society; we are willing to have a free exchange and a free debate over any and all ideas."
Khatami has been invited to give a speech at Washington's National Cathedral on the roles that Islam, Judaism, and Christianity can play in bringing peace. He is also due to attend several other events.
...And An Icebreaker?
There has been talk that Khatami's U.S. visit could eventually lead to a meeting with former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, whose presidency was marred by the taking of U.S. hostages in Tehran following the Islamic revolution in 1979. "The Washington Post" reported that Carter has agreed in principle to host Khatami. There has been no official reaction from Khatami, but the "Financial Times" quoted Iranian sources today as saying Khatami would be unlikely to accept such an invitation.
Sick says if such a meeting took place, it could be significant for the two former leaders. But he cites a 1998 meeting that one of the Iranian hostage takers, Abbas Abdi, had with former U.S. hostage Barry Rosen in arguing that it would be unlikely to alter national policies.
"I remember vividly when Abbas Abdi went to Paris and met with one of the former American hostages," Sick says. "It was regarded as a big deal, and then it was over and the situation remained just about where it was before."
But professor Amirahmadi suggests the meeting could be an icebreaker
"Before traveling to the U.S., Mr. Khatami should discuss the issue with Iranian leaders, with Ayatollah [Ali] Khamenei, and tell them that after meeting with Mr. Carter he would invite [Carter] to visit Iran," Amirahmadi says. "If that happens, then some of the great mistrust that exists will be removed."
Some Iranians living in the United States have criticized the decision to allow Khatami's visit. They say that serious human rights violations took place in Iran during his presidency (1997-2005). Some groups have already urged the public to protest.
The visit has also been condemned by Senator Rick Santorum (Republican, Pennsylvania). The conservative Santorum called Khatami "one of the chief propagandists" in what he has described as "the Islamic fascist regime."
A Jewish group, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, warned that the visa will be viewed by Iranian leaders as "a reward for their policy of confrontation and hatred toward the U.S. and her allies.'"
Others have said the former Iranian president, who studied philosophy, should be praised for his commitment to dialogue among civilizations and efforts to usher in limited reforms in Iran.
Khatami advocated a policy of detente with the West. In a 1998 interview with CNN, Khatami called for a "dialogue with the American people." He said that Iran and the United States should create a "crack in the wall of mistrust" through the exchange of scholars, writers, and artists.
The two sides held secret talks following the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, but those meetings do not appear to have led to any broader dialogue.
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