Iran protests to United States about treatment of its
BY: Geneive Abdo in Qom
The Guardian (London)
December 6, 1999
A party of senior Iranian theologians has withdrawn from a conference
in Washington in protest at their treatment by US immigration officials.
The decision by the authorities at JFK airport in New York to take fingerprints
and photographs of the mullahs at the weekend has caused outrage in Iran
and has highlighted the difficulties in improving the Islamic republic's
relations with the United States.
Most of the theologians were from the holy Shi'ite city of Qom. Even
moderate clerics have been infuriated by the heavy-handed security precautions.
Asadollah Bayat, a reformist cleric and an advocate of civil liberties,
reflected the anger and confusion felt across Iran yesterday at the theologians'
experience. He said he had believed that the 'Great Satan' was changing
'Why does the US government treat their guests this way?' he asked.
'The time for such behaviour has passed.'
Clerics associated with Ayatollah Mohammed Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, the leading
ideologue of Iran's conservative establishment, had taken a significant
step when they accepted an invitation from Professor John Esposito, the
most influential Islamic scholar in the US. Prof Esposito had invited
the Iranian clerics to attend a seminar on Islam and secularism at Georgetown
university, where he directs the centre for Muslim and Christian understanding.
He had tried, but failed, to persuade the US state department to waive
the usual scrutiny given to Iranian nationals entering the US. The standard
procedure includes taking fingerprints and photographs. No foreign visitors
to Iran are subject to such treatment.
Prof Esposito had invited the delegation as part of an exchange programme
described by Iran's reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, as a 'dialogue
'The problem is that the stated desires of both President Khatami and
President Clinton for a 'dialogue of civil isations' can be undercut by
overzealous sectors of a government,' Prof Esposito said. 'The US, with
this kind of regulation, makes this kind of dialogue almost impossible.'
The incident represents a major setback to behind-the-scenes attempts
to restore relations between Iran and the US, frozen 20 years ago following
the Islamic revolution.
Both sides have hoped for improved relations since President Khatami
came to power in May 1997, promoting a policy of detente. But progress
is often damaged by the actions of the US, which Iran considers to be inconsistent.
On Friday, the Clinton administration announced that it would waive
US sanctions against Iran and allow Boeing to supply parts to Iran's national
But on Saturday, the Washington Post quoted US officials accusing Iran
of stepping up its shipments of arms to militant groups, including Hamas
in the Gaza Strip and Hizbullah in southern Lebanon.
The Iranian government hotly denies funding any militant groups, and
was deeply offended by the unsubstantiated charges. These mixed messages
reaffirm Iranian suspicions that Washington is not serious about mending
Iranian state television said of the airport incident: 'Once again,
the Americans have shown they are not honest in normalising relations with
An editorial in yesterday's edition of Jomhouri-e Eslami, a conservative
newspaper, said that Washington's 'comments about Iran are always unbalanced'.
The newspaper also demanded the cancellation of an Iranian football team's
friendly match in Los Angeles in January.
Iran's foreign ministry has protested to the US. A senior government
official described the US authorities' behaviour as 'rude' and called on
Washington to reconsider its policies toward Iranian visitors.
Such incidents damage the efforts of moderates at the Iranian foreign
ministry to convince conservatives that it would be in Iran's interest
to restore relations with the US.