WASHINGTON – Despite intense disagreement over suspected nuclear weapons programs and terrorism, the Bush administration decided Tuesday to allow former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami to visit the United States.
A visa was granted Tuesday to Khatami and several Iranians who will accompany him on the visit early next month, said State Department spokesman Tom Casey.
There will be no restrictions on his travel.
Khatami plans to attend a U.N. conference Sept. 5-6 in New York to promote dialogue, then speak at the Washington National Cathedral on Sept. 7. on the role of Islam, Christianity and Judaism in shaping peace.
No meetings with U.S. officials are anticipated, Casey told reporters at a briefing.
The visit is an opportunity for Khatami "to hear the concerns of the American people," Casey said. "He's going to get some tough questions from the American people who he does meet with."
"I think it's important to recognize that we are an open society, we are willing to have a free exchange and a free debate over any and all ideas," Casey said.
Khatami would be the most senior Iranian official to visit Washington since Islamic fundamentalists seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and held Americans there hostage for 444 days.
The Iranian Embassy in Washington closed in April 1980. There have been no formal relations between the two countries since then, although U.S. and Iranian diplomats have participated in multinational meetings, such as on Afghanistan.
A growing number of former U.S. diplomats and members of Congress have urged the administration to talk to Iran about their disagreements.
Currently, the Bush administration is locked in a fierce dispute with Iran over what Casey said was the country's defiance of U.N. Security Council demands that it suspend enrichment of uranium.
The spokesman reaffirmed U.S. intentions to seek U.N. sanctions against Iran if it does not comply by Thursday's deadline.
The administration also regards Iran as a sponsor of terrorism. Casey said Iran was not only a state sponsor of terrorism, but "the leading banker of terror."
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Tuesday in Tehran challenged the Security Council's authority and said the U.S. Britain were the source of tension.
He also called for a debate with President Bush on world issues.