Iran General NewsSenior Democrat snubbed by Iran in outreach bid

Senior Democrat snubbed by Iran in outreach bid

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ImageWall Street Journal: The chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs tried to meet a top aide to Iran's supreme leader in mid-December but was rebuffed at the last minute, a snub that illustrates the challenges to dialogue with Tehran pushed by President Barack Obama.

The Wall Street Journal

By JAY SOLOMON

ImageWASHINGTON — The chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs tried to meet a top aide to Iran's supreme leader in mid-December but was rebuffed at the last minute, a snub that illustrates the challenges to dialogue with Tehran pushed by President Barack Obama.

Rep. Howard Berman, a California Democrat, notified Mr. Obama's transition team and the Bush White House of the planned meeting in Bahrain, according to senior Obama administration officials.

The engagement with Ali Larijani, speaker of the Iranian parliament, would have marked one of the highest-level meetings between American and Iranian officials since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. It's unclear why Mr. Larijani pulled out.

Iran's competing power centers have often differed on the merits of engaging the U.S. and the West, sometimes producing whiplash on the part of Americans who seek to improve ties.

Rep. Berman's office didn't respond to requests for comment. A spokesman at Iran's mission to the United Nations in New York declined to comment.

Until late 2007, Mr. Larijani served as a national security adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and as Tehran's chief nuclear negotiator. He is a potential contender in June presidential elections against the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Rep. Berman has been a leading proponent in Congress of sanctions on Iran aimed at stalling its nuclear program, but has also said Tehran should be tested to assess whether dialogue could achieve the same aim. That resembles the view of Mr. Obama, who has said he wants a high-level dialogue with Iran to address the nuclear issue and regional concerns such as Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The proposed meeting was brokered by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, organizer of the Manama Dialogue, an annual regional security conference. Rep. Berman canceled his trip to Bahrain after being notified by the institute that Mr. Larijani wouldn't attend, according to officials familiar with the episode.

In recent days, Mr. Ahmadinejad and Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said the Obama administration would need to apologize for Washington's past actions, such as support for a 1953 military coup in Iran, before Tehran agreed to high-level talks.

"We do believe that if the new administration of the United States, as Mr. Obama says, is going to change its policies not in saying but practice, they will find in the region a cooperative approach and reaction," Mr. Mottaki said last week at the World Economic Forum.

Contacts between the U.S. and Iran have accelerated in recent months. In November, the presidents of six American universities visited Tehran to promote scientific exchanges. "When we left, we had a promise to do more academic exchanges," said participant David Skorton, president of Cornell University.

Weeks later, however, one of the organizers, Glenn Schweitzer of the National Academies, an umbrella body that includes the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, was detained and questioned in Tehran by Iranian intelligence operatives. Mr. Schweitzer said his inquisitors impressed on him their belief that scientific exchanges were bad for Iran.

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