By Bridget Johnson - 05/02/10 08:20 PM EDT
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will stir the already stormy debate over sanctions on Iran's nuclear program when he pops in at the United Nations on Monday to address its nuclear nonproliferation conference.
Ahmadinejad's sudden intention to attend caught many by surprise, and comes on the heels of the Islamic Republic's vow last month to formally complain to the U.N. that President Barack Obama was threatening Iran.
Iranian media outlets reported Ahmadinejad saying that he was coming to the U.S. with the goal of global nuclear disarmament, criticizing the International Atomic Energy Agency for not reaching this goal and lamenting that nuclear weapons have posed "the single greatest threat" to the world for more than 60 years.
"I don't know what he's showing up for," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Sunday on "Meet the Press."
"If Iran is coming to say we're willing to abide by the Non-Proliferation Treaty that would be very welcome news," Clinton said. "I have a feeling that's not what they're coming to do. I think they're coming to try to divert attention and confuse the issue."
Lawmakers had swiftly sounded off about the visit, admonishing Clinton to not allow Ahmadinejad in the country.
"This is preposterous, and allowing it to happen will make a mockery of the effort to stop the spread of nuclear weapons to rogue states and terrorist groups," a group of 14 Republican senators led by John Cornyn (Texas) wrote to Clinton on Friday. "There is simply no compelling reason for Ahmadinejad to be allowed to enter the United States."
In the lower chamber, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) led a similar yet bipartisan letter.
"Make no mistake: Ahmadinejad's attendance will make a mockery of a conference meant to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons," the lawmakers wrote. "...The U.S. must not allow this dangerous tyrant to use our freedoms and our obligations as a host country for the UN to force himself upon our country to spread his message of hate and violence."
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki on Saturday said it was the responsibility of the U.S. to allow Iranian officials in as host country to the U.N.
"The U.S. administration does not have the right to make an instrumental use of visa issuance for the other countries' delegations and should not try to take the UN Security Council and the UN hostage through such an attitude," Mottaki said. Iran's Press TV reported that the U.S. issued visas for the delegation later Saturday.
Mottaki accompanied Ahmadinejad to New York on Sunday along with other high-ranking officials. Iran's Mehr News Agency reported Sunday that an Iranian press delegation intending to accompany Ahmadinejad had been denied visas, though.
Iran responded to Obama's nuclear posture review last month, stressing the U.S. would not strike non-nuclear states and those in compliance with nonproliferation treaties but leaving the door open for attacks in "extreme circumstances" against "outliers" such as Iran and North Korea, with a vow to lodge a formal complaint against the U.S. at the United Nations.
The Iranian president's visit to Turtle Bay comes as the administration has been attempting to forge agreement with Security Council veto-wielders Russia and China on the scope and breadth of tougher sanctions against Iran's blossoming nuclear program, but also as Congress has been turning up the heat on the White House over the speed of the sanctions process.
Reps. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) and Mike Pence (R-Ind.) sent a letter to Obama on April 19 with 366 House signatures calling on the president to "fulfill your June 2008 pledge that you would do 'everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon'" and urging Obama to use whatever presidential powers at his means to impose "punishing measures" on Tehran.
The letter, to which Obama has not yet issued a response, according to Jackson's office late Friday, also asks the president to "rapidly" implement the sanctions legislation -- passed in December by the House and the following month by the Senate -- when it comes out of conference.
The first conference on the legislation was held Wednesday, and the lawmakers have a non-binding goal of wrapping up work by May 28.
Additional efforts by lawmakers to pressure Iran continue, though, including a letter signed a little over a week ago by 17 lawmakers who are also Harvard alumni -- spearheaded by Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) and including Dems Reps. Barney Frank (Mass.) and Alan Grayson (Fla.) -- urging divestment over Iran's nuclear program.
"The Iran Sanctions Enabling Act, which enjoys nearly unanimous bipartisan support in both the House and Senate, calls on 'states, local governments, educational institutions, and private institutions to seek to disassociate themselves from companies that directly or indirectly support the Government of Iran's efforts to achieve a nuclear weapons capability,'" the letter states. "...As one of the preeminent educational institutions in the United States, Harvard University should be at the vanguard of such divestment."