Envoy faces a talking-to for debate with Iranians

January 30, 2008|Paul Richter and Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — America's sometimes-freewheeling ambassador to the United Nations ran afoul of his superiors by taking part in unauthorized debate with two high-ranking Iranian officials during a conference of world leaders last week in the luxury Alpine resort of Davos, Switzerland.

Zalmay Khalilzad made an unscheduled appearance Saturday at a World Economic Forum discussion of Iran's controversial nuclear program, whose participants included Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and Mojtaba Samare Hashemi, a top advisor to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Khalilzad did not veer from the U.S. position, but broke rules that permit Bush administration officials to discuss issues with Iranians only under limited circumstances and with advance approval.

"Ambassador Khalilzad's appearance with the Iranian foreign minister and presidential advisor was not authorized," said a State Department spokesman, who declined to be identified while discussing a personnel issue. He said officials would speak to Khalilzad about the infraction.

Video of the 78-minute discussion has been posted on the World Economic Forum website and on YouTube. But State Department officials were taken by surprise when they received questions about it Tuesday afternoon.

Iran analysts have speculated that the administration may be extending feelers for a dialogue with Tehran after an intelligence report concluded in December that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons quest in 2003. But Khalilzad's spokesman said the Davos encounter was not meant to open a conversation with Iran on its nuclear program.

"There was no separate meeting or separate one-on-one conversation or handshake with the Iranian foreign minister," spokesman Richard A. Grenell said. "It was just a multilateral conversation, with a moderator."

The website for the Davos conference does not list Khalilzad as a participant on the panel, suggesting that he may have joined in belatedly.

U.S. officials have limited discussion with Tehran in an effort to isolate the Iranians for their refusal to comply with U.N. Security Council resolutions aimed at halting their uranium enrichment effort. American officials have said that open discussions with the Iranians undermine the U.S. effort to pressure Tehran.

Khalilzad is known in the diplomatic community as an affable ambassador who does not always follow the administration's rules.

U.S. officials were left red-faced last month when he circulated a U.N. Security Council resolution supporting Mideast peace efforts begun in November at a gathering in Annapolis, Md. Khalilzad was forced to withdraw the resolution after Israeli officials complained that they did not want Security Council involvement in the talks.

Khalilzad, a former ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq, is one of the few U.S. officials who has had personal contact with Iranian counterparts. While ambassador to Afghanistan, he orchestrated Iran's help in establishing a transitional government in Kabul. While in Iraq, he engaged Iran on security issues.

When he arrived at the U.N. last year, Khalilzad said he had no instructions to engage the Iranian ambassador to the world body, but that he also had no instructions to avoid him.

Richter reported from Washington and Farley from the United Nations.

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