Iran General NewsA new Iran overture, with hot dogs

A new Iran overture, with hot dogs


ImageNew York Times: Having sent the Iranian people a video greeting on their New Year, President Obama is now inviting them to help celebrate a quintessentially American holiday, the Fourth of July.

The New York Times

Published: June 2, 2009

ImageSAN SALVADOR — Having sent the Iranian people a video greeting on their New Year, President Obama is now inviting them to help celebrate a quintessentially American holiday, the Fourth of July.

Last Friday, the State Department sent a cable to its embassies and consulates around the world notifying them that “they may invite representatives from the government of Iran” to their Independence Day celebrations — annual receptions that typically feature hot dogs, red-white-and-blue bunting and some perfunctory remarks about the founding fathers.

Administration officials characterized the move as another in a series of American overtures to Iran. The United States has not had relations with Iran since the American Embassy in Tehran was seized by protesters in 1979; the country’s diplomats have not been formally invited to American events since then.

“It is another way of saying we are not putting barriers in the way of communicating,” said one administration official. “It is another way of signaling that there is an opportunity that should not be wasted.”

A second official said the ban no longer made sense, at a time when the United States was actively engaging with Iranian officials elsewhere. In March, the administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard C. Holbrooke, chatted with Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Mohammad Mehdi Akhondzadeh, at a conference in The Hague.

The authorization to issue the invitations was disclosed by a senior State Department official on the eve of a three-day visit to Latin America by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the new policy was not public.

Even as the United States reaches out to Tehran, it is trying to reclaim American influence in Latin America, where Iran has made inroads while the United States has been waging wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

On Monday, Mrs. Clinton was in El Salvador to attend the inauguration of Mauricio Funes, whose election as president represents the first time the country has swung to the left since its civil war ended in 1992. She will be in Honduras on Tuesday for a meeting of the Organization of American States. The United States is expected to face intense pressure from Cuba’s neighbors to reinstate the island’s membership in the group.

Mrs. Clinton has said Iran’s rising influence in the region is “quite disturbing.” In May, she told State Department employees that the Bush administration’s policy toward Latin America had created an opening for Iran and China, which are using commercial and other assistance to bolster anti-American leaders like Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua.

“They are building strong economic and political connections with a lot of these leaders,” she said. “I don’t think that’s in our interest.”

While Iran’s influence in the region is dwarfed by that of China — which is a huge buyer of raw materials from Latin American countries — Tehran’s role has touched a nerve among senior administration officials like Mrs. Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who has also spoken publicly about it.

“The specter of Iran raises red flags in a way that China doesn’t, because China tends to respect the American sphere of influence,” said Julia E. Sweig, a Latin American expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Iran’s motives are murkier, according to administration officials. It has cultivated wide-ranging economic ties with Venezuela and, to a lesser extent, Nicaragua. But it has also been linked to the bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994, which killed 85 people.

Iran is not known to have a big presence in El Salvador, officials said, and it was not represented at Mr. Funes’s inauguration. But the change in power after 17 years of a pro-American right-wing government could offer an opening.

Mr. Funes’s victory continues the ascension of the political left across Latin America; some analysts worry he will adopt the anti-American rhetoric of Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. His party, the F.M.L.N., has its roots in guerrillas who fought El Salvador’s American-backed army in the 1980s and 1990s. But Mr. Funes is viewed as more centrist than his party. American officials said Mrs. Clinton’s presence was meant to signal that Washington would not take El Salvador for granted.

“Some might say President Obama is left of center,” Mrs. Clinton said after meeting with Mr. Funes.

Speaking earlier to American diplomats, she alluded to the vagaries of American influence in the region.

“Some of the difficulties we’ve had historically in forging strong and lasting ties in our hemisphere,” she said, “are a result of our perhaps not listening, perhaps not paying close enough attention.”

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