The Obama administration is weighing an unprecedented diplomatic act — whether to bar a friendly president from U.S. soil.
American officials were evaluating on Tuesday an awkward request from Yemeni strongman and longtime U.S. counterterrorism partner Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has said he plans to come to the U.S. for medical treatment for injuries suffered in a June assassination attempt and has asked for a U.S. entry visa.
Fearful of appearing to harbor an autocrat with blood on his hands, the Obama administration was trying to ensure that Mr. Saleh visits only for medical care and doesn’t plan to stay, U.S. officials said.
Washington’s hesitation reflects the shifting alliances and foreign policy strategy prompted by a year of upheaval in the Arab world. Mr. Saleh has served as an American ally against al Qaeda and will soon transfer power under a U.S.-backed deal with Yemen’s political opposition aimed at ending months of instability.
He isn’t subject to any U.S. or international sanctions. But he also is accused of committing gross human rights violations during a year of internal conflict, and the U.S. is trying not to burn any bridges with Yemeni political groups likely to take part in future governments. Political asylum for the 33-year dictator, or the appearance of preferential treatment, would be highly unpopular with Yemenis.
Officials close to Mr. Saleh, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said Washington’s suspicion that he may seek political asylum was delaying approval of his trip.
But American officials appeared to substantiate those concerns and said they were troubled by Mr. Saleh’s recent comments portraying his trip as a move designed to ease the political transition.
“What we’re looking at now is a request to come to the United States for the sole purpose of medical treatment,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said, refusing to go into the specifics of the evaluation. “That permission has not been granted yet.”
Mr. Toner declined to elaborate on the assurances the U.S. wanted from Mr. Saleh or offer a timetable for a decision. He also couldn’t say whether anything in U.S. law prevents the Yemeni leader from visiting the country if he demonstrates that his stay will be temporary.
In that case, Mr. Saleh almost surely will be granted entry, U.S. officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because visa evaluations are supposed to be confidential. It’s unclear when, if ever, the last time the head of state of a friendly government was blocked from visiting the U.S.
President Obama’s national security team was expected to make the final decision on Mr. Saleh’s request. Mr. Obama was being briefed on developments while on vacation in Hawaii.
Mr. Saleh’s immediate plans are unclear. An American official said Mr. Saleh’s office informed the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa that the outgoing leader plans to leave Yemen soon and travel elsewhere abroad first, before coming to the U.S.
The situation offers an eerie parallel to three decades ago, when President Carter allowed the exiled shah of Iran into the U.S. for medical treatment in October 1979, eight months after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic revolution ousted the shah.
On Nov. 4, 1979, Iranian students invaded the U.S. Embassy in Iran and held 52 Americans hostage, demanding that the shah be turned over. The shah went to Egypt before Christmas 1979, but Iran kept the Americans hostage until Jan. 20, 1981, the day Mr. Carter left office.
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