- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Bush administration yesterday was at a loss to explain the rare presence in Washington of an Iranian government official who slipped into the United States under mysterious circumstances, apparently to attend a scholarly conference.

The State Department said that Mohammad Nahavandian, an economics and technology aide to Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, “is not here for meetings with U.S. government officials.”

However, former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani said yesterday Mr. Nahavandian had received “an invitation to participate in a conference in America, being organized by U.S. scholars.”

“I heard reports that he held official talks in Washington but Iran has denied such reports,” he said at a press conference in Kuwait but did not elaborate.

Homeland Security Department spokesman Russ Knocke said last night: “We are aware of the case and continue to look thoroughly into it”

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack could not explain how Mr. Nahavandian entered the country, saying only, “We have no record of issuing a visa to a person with this name.”

“There are two other ways” for a foreigner to enter the United States without a visa, Mr. McCormack said. “One is to be a legal permanent resident and have a green card. The other way is to have a passport from a visa-waiver program country.”

Currently, 27 countries, mostly from Western Europe, participate in the program.

Mr. McCormack did not provide details but promised to look into the issue.

Most officials yesterday were working on the assumption that Mr. Nahavandian has a green card that was obtained years ago, possibly when he was a student here, as sources in Iran were quoted as saying by wire reports.

But even if Mr. Nahavandian was granted legal permanent residency back then, it was not clear that he still maintains that status today.

Green card holders must spend at least half of the year in the United States to preserve their legal status. However, one official said that there are ways to keep a green card without fulfilling that requirement.

It is also possible, another official noted, that Mr. Nahavandian’s green card was never canceled in spite of his apparent long absence from the United States, and the immigration officer who processed him upon arrival almost two weeks ago did not establish when the visitor was last in the country.

A third official suggested that, even if Mr. Nahavandian has a green card, it could be revoked.

A visit by a fairly senior Iranian official in Washington is very uncommon, given that the two countries have not had diplomatic relations since the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the 444-day hostage crisis at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.

Iranian diplomats are accredited to the United Nations in New York, but their movements are limited to a 25-mile radius around the city.

The Bush administration and the regime of the new Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have been exchanging sharp rhetoric while the West has been trying to persuade Tehran to abandon its suspected nuclear weapons program.

Mr. Nahavandian, whose visit was first reported by the Financial Times, is also president of the Chamber of Industry and Commerce in Tehran and head of the National Center for Globalization Studies.

The White House has authorized the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, to hold direct talks with Iran but those talks would be limited to the situation in Iraq, leaving the nuclear issue to the Europeans to negotiate.

Influential members of Congress, including the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Richard G. Lugar, have suggested that the administration engage directly with the Iranians.

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