Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Senior Iranian aide irks Washington with US visit

Senior Iranian aide irks Washington with US visit
By Sue Pleming

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As the United States tries to push other nations to impose a travel ban on Iranian government officials over Tehran's nuclear program, a senior Iranian official has created embarrassment in Washington by slipping into the country for a visit this month.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said on Tuesday he had heard that Mohammad Nahavandian, a senior aide to Iran's top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani, was in Washington but he had not met U.S. officials and his presence was being looked into.

"It's a matter of interest for us and if I have any other information to share on the matter today or in the days ahead, I'll do so," McCormack told reporters.

Nahavandian's successful entry into the United States is embarrassing for Washington, which is pushing hard for other countries to impose travel restrictions on Iranian officials in talks in Moscow this week.

The talks follow Iran's announcement last week that it had enriched uranium for use in fueling power stations for the first time in defiance of a March 29 U.N. Security Council demand that it halt its enrichment program.

McCormack declined to say how Nahavandian got into the United States, where strict restrictions are in place on Iranian officials wanting to visit.

Nahavandian was in the United States legally, but not enter with a visa. This could mean he holds legal permanent residency in the United States or be traveling on the passport of a country where visas were not needed, said McCormack.

"We have no record of issuing a visa to a person with this name," he said, noting that the United States does not have diplomatic ties with Tehran and there are clear restrictions on travel by Iranian officials.

For example, Iranian diplomats at the United Nations in New York can travel only within a limited area.

The Financial Times quoted an Iranian advisor this month as saying Nahavandian was in Washington to float the idea of direct talks between the two countries.

But McCormack ruled out any possibility of U.S. officials meeting Nahavandian and reiterated the United States would not hold direct talks with Iran over its nuclear program.

"We have not issued an invitation to any such individual and at this point have no plans to do so," he said.

While rejecting any talks over Tehran's nuclear program, the Bush administration has given its ambassador in Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, permission to meet Iranian officials. However, those talks will be limited to Iraq.

Leading Republican Sen. Richard Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has urged the Bush administration to hold direct talks with Tehran, a suggestion U.S. officials have rejected.