WASHINGTON -- The Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations has canceled what would have been a historic appearance in Philadelphia because the State Department refused to grant him permission to travel to the event, according to its organizers.
The World Affairs Council of Philadelphia was scheduled to host Ambassador Mohammad Khazaee, permanent representative of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations, for an event on Feb. 5. Organizers first reached out to the State Department on Dec. 3, as Khazaee requires permission to travel from New York, where he is based, to Philadelphia.
The Huffington Post first asked the State Department whether it would grant Khazaee travel permission a month later, on Jan. 3. By Jan. 21, the State Department had confirmed that Iran had submitted all the necessary paperwork, but communication ended there.
Craig Snyder, the group's president, broke the news in a note sent to members.
"As the World Affairs Council has worked, in fulfillment of our nonpartisan educational mission, to bring you this potentially historic conversation, we have faced significant logistical challenges in coordinating between the schedule of Ambassador Khazaee (including his personal involvement with the Secretary General of the United Nations regarding the ongoing Syrian peace talks) and the travel limitations placed on Representatives of certain governments by the United States Department of State," he wrote. "As of this writing, the Department of State has not cleared Ambassador Khazaee to visit Philadelphia, and the Ambassador, who has held the date of February 5th on his schedule for some time, now needs to use that date for other business matters."
The cancellation of the event comes as the administration has aggressively sought to suppress any activity in Congress that could upset the delicate balance of nuclear negotiations, effectively stalling a bill to tighten sanctions on Iran which the White House has strongly opposed. The administration's refusal to grant Khazaee permission to travel is unexpected, given the timing of the resulting diplomatic dustup.
A State Department spokesperson didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. Alireza Miryousefi, a spokesman for the Iranian Permanent Mission to the U.N. in New York and Kiumars Javidnia, third counselor to the Permanent Mission, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The World Affairs Council provided HuffPost the following timeline of events:
12/3/13 – The World Affairs Council of Philadelphia (WAC) let the State Dept. know that Amb. Khazaee had accepted their invitation to speak to the Council the first week of February, and that they approve the visit.
12/6/13 – The State Department acknowledged the request and asked WAC to work with the Iranian mission to "submit the request formally for consideration."
1/8/14 – The Iranian Mission confirmed that "all documents and forms" had been sent to the State Dept.
1/21/14 – After several more attempts to check on the status, the State Dept. confirmed that the Iranians had submitted everything required for a decision to be made.
1/29/14 – Craig Snyder contacted the State Dept. to check on status, pleading for an answer given the approaching date of the planned event and the exposure of both the Council and the Ambassador to adverse consequences should they be forced to cancel any closer to the announced date (2/5/14).
1/30/14 – Craig and the Council had no alternative but to agree to release the hold on the Ambassador's schedule, cancel hotel arrangements and notify the hundreds of registered attendees that the event would not be able to be held.
UDPATE: Friday, 4:40 p.m. -- Holly Holzer, the deputy director at the Office of Iranian Affairs at the State Department, left a message for Snyder at 8:15 p.m. Thursday night, but he did not receive the message until 1 p.m. Friday, due to traveling. Snyder returned the phone call but has not heard back.
"The message just said 'Call me' and didn’t have anything substantive in it. So I called her back and left a message and haven’t heard back, so that’s where we stand," Snyder described, noting he also had not received a written response.
An incident of this nature has never been an issue for the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia before, Snyder explained. He accused the State Department of willfully stalling the ambassador's travel approval despite recent remarks by President Barack Obama to pursue diplomatic avenues with Iran. While such travel regulations are enforced in an effort to monitor the activities of officials who are not U.S.-credentialed diplomats, Snyder views the State Department's inaction as a strategic decision to "play out the clock."
"You can say it’s just bureaucratic bumbling," Snyder explained. "I really believe that’s not the case because we were regularly bugging them about this and telling them how urgent it was … I think they made a decision not to decide because it then put us in a position of having to cancel. They can say accurately and truthfully, they did not turn it down. But in my view they just sort of played out the clock until we had to cancel it."
Snyder speculated that while the administration's official position encourages what he called, "government-to-government diplomacy," he said, "it’s not real keen on allowing citizen diplomacy, allowing real people-to-people contact, because that’s obviously something that wouldn’t be as closely controlled, not as tightly messaged as the official stuff."
"I’m not criticizing the policy," Snyder said, "but the one thing we’re not neutral about is free expression, and in this case, the policy is, I think, an obstruction of free expression."
Ambassador Khazaee was scheduled to deliver only 10 minutes of prepared remarks before opening up the event to more than an hour of open Q and A.
Shadee Ashtari contributed reporting.