WASHINGTON -- The United States on Wednesday expressed disappointment with Iran's refusal to issue visas for an American badminton team and said it did not bode well for possible similar outreach programs in the future.
As the Obama administration continues with a broad review of U.S. policy on Iran that may include the appointment of a special envoy and direct contacts with Iranian officials, the State Department said Tehran's batdown of what some have termed "shuttlecock diplomacy" was troubling.
"This is a very unfortunate situation," State Department spokesman Robert Wood told reporters, adding that the U.S. had not received any official notification of the reason for the visa refusal. He noted that both President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton remained committed to engaging with Iran under the proper circumstances.
"It's not a good sign," Wood said. "You know, as the secretary and others have said, when the Iranians unclench that fist, there will be a hand waiting to greet them."
Obama has signaled a willingness for dialogue with Iran, particularly over the nuclear program that U.S. officials believe is aimed at developing an atomic weapon. On Wednesday, senior diplomats from the six countries leading the drive to resolve those concerns met in Germany and welcomed the new U.S. approach.
"The readiness of the new administration to reach out to Iran was explicitly welcomed by all," German Foreign Ministry spokesman Jens Ploetner said after the session among officials from Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States. "We hope that this outstretched hand will not be seen as a sign of weakness in Tehran."
U.S. officials declined to draw any links between the failure of the badminton trip and other initiatives, but acknowledged that the visa refusal was problematic.
"It's hard to say what the Iranian motivation is here," Wood said. "I would just say that this is a people-to-people exchange program. We are very interested in trying to improve relations between the American people and the Iranian people and this is not a good step forward in terms of trying to promote people-to-people exchanges."
He said the badminton team, which had traveled to Dubai to pick up the visas, would return to the United States. He could not say whether the State Department would follow through on plans to issue visas for the Iranian national badminton team to come to the United States in July.
The two countries have not had diplomatic relations since the Islamic Revolution and hostage-taking at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979.
The badminton team's planned participation in an international tournament in Tehran was to have been the first educational, cultural or sports exchange between the United States and Iran under the Obama administration.
Under the Bush administration, more than 250 Iranian artists, athletes and medical professionals have participated in exchange programs in the United States since 2006. The U.S. has sent 32 athletes to Iran under a sports exchange program launched in 2007, and 75 Iranian athletes and coaches have visited the United States, State officials said.
However, in late December, the Bush administration expressed grave concern about the detention and interrogation in Iran of a prominent American academic who was participating in an exchange. The incident led the National Academies of Science to suspend educational exchanges with Iranian institutions.
Iran's foreign ministry said the women's team from USA Badminton, which had been invited to the tournament by the Iranian Badminton Federation, would not be allowed to play due to a "lack of enough time to process" the applications. It was not clear when Iran invited the 12-member team or when they had applied for their visas -- usually a long bureaucratic process that is complicated for U.S. citizens by the lack of diplomatic relations.
USA Badminton said in a statement, however, said all members of the team had completed their visa applications more than two months ago "in plenty of time to meet all deadlines."
"We were told our visas had been approved and were asked to secure them in Dubai," said the organization's chief executive officer Dan Cloppas. "It's unfortunate that we will not be able to compete and sincerely hope we will be extended another invitation in the near future."