US Denies Visas to Iranian Religious Leaders

A religious delegation from Iran has canceled a scheduled visit to the United States this week after members of the group were denied visas by the State Department.

The denial of the visa applications of four of the 14 delegation members was denounced by one of one of the trip’s sponsors, who suggested Washington’s move was consistent with a policy of confrontation, rather than engagement, with Iran.

"We are disappointed and troubled that the administration denied the visas…particularly because we received assurances from the State Department that [it] would move heaven and earth to make this reciprocal religious leaders’ visit possible," said Joe Volk, executive secretary of the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker group.

"The denials parallel a disturbing escalation of rhetoric against Iran and further demonstrate this administration’s current strategy of confrontation rather than diplomacy. Again, this administration appears to be choosing the war path rather than the negotiating table," he added.

A State Department official confirmed that the visas have not been approved.

The decision means that the Iranians will be unable to reciprocate a visit last February of a diverse group of US Christian leaders, representing Union Methodist, Episcopal, Baptist, Catholic, Evangelical, Quaker, and Mennonite traditions.

While in Iran, they met with a range of religious, cultural, and political figures, including Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who reportedly told them that he was open to unconditional talks with the US government "if we see some goodwill." The group was the first from the United States to hold a face-to-face meeting with an Iranian president since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

"The Iranian government has already built a bridge toward the American people by inviting our delegation to come to Iran," said the US delegation upon its return. It urged the administration of President George W. Bush to "welcome a similar delegation" in order to help bring "a new day in US-Iranian relations."

But despite two rounds of bilateral talks about stabilizing Iraq between US and Iranian envoys since then, tensions between the two countries have risen steadily, most recently amid Washington’s charges that Tehran is supplying deadly Explosively Formed Penetrators (EFPs) and other weapons to Shi’ite militias that have been attacking US forces in Iraq.

A number of senior politicians have called for US forces to carry out cross-border raids into Iran to prevent the alleged smuggling of weapons and personnel into Iraq, and Bush himself recently hinted that he is prepared to authorize such attacks.

In addition, Tehran’s refusal to date to bow to US and western demands that it freeze its nuclear-enrichment program has strengthened hawks in the Bush administration and Congress, which itself is poised to approve a number of tough measures that would impose new economic sanctions on Iran and on foreign companies who do business with it.

Indeed, the administration is reportedly considering listing Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) as a terrorist organization, a move that a number of Iran experts here warn would likely further diminish prospects for any bilateral engagement on Iraq or any other issue.

"It is extremely disconcerting that they were denied visas," said Carol Ong, Iran policy analyst for the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation. "[It is] more than a missed opportunity, particularly when there is so much mistrust between the countries. By making this sort of gesture, we facilitate more mistrust to do with future exchanges."

What is particularly remarkable about the visa denials is that the administration has spoken out frequently in favor of "people-to-people" exchanges as a means of encouraging change in Iran and other allegedly hostile nations.

"The fact that the US government has pulled the plug by denying these visas proves to us that the prospect that Americans and Iranians of various faiths shaking hands and talking together and determining their common interests was simply not the image the Bush administration wanted to portray of the Iranians," said Mary Ellen McNish, general secretary of the American Friends Service Committee.

Even some hawkish neoconservatives have argued that such contacts helped weaken the Communist hold over Central and Eastern Europe in the 1970’s and 1980s, setting the stage for the Soviet collapse. They have made no secret of their hope that a similar "regime change" strategy could apply in Iran.

Last year, the State Department approved the visit of former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami, although its action came under strong attack by right-wing and Iranian exile forces here.

The State Department declined to comment on why the four members of the delegation were not approved for a visa, insisting that visa matters were confidential. Two of the four proscribed members of the Iranian delegation, however, reportedly were members of the IRGC during the 1980s, although this could not be independently confirmed.

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