Iran may miss UN summit if US fails to issue visa to president

Julian Borger in Washington
Photograph: Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images

Iran’s president and foreign minister have yet to receive US visas to come to next week’s United Nations general assembly summit in New York, putting their attendance in doubt.

A spokesman for the Iranian mission to the UN said that if the visas are not issued by the end of the week, Hassan Rouhani and Mohammad Javad Zarif would not be able to come to the summit, which is attended by heads of state and government from around the world.

A UN spokesman said that under the host country agreement, the US is required to issue visas to representatives of UN member states who come to New York for official UN business.

Related: Saudi offers 'proof' of Iran's role in oil attack and urges US response

The UN general assembly comes at a time when the US and Iran are at a crisis point in their relations, after some brief optimism that Rouhani and Donald Trump might meet at the summit was swept away by a large-scale attack on Saturday on Saudi oil facilities, which US and Saudi officials have blamed on Iran.

In the past, some of Washington’s worst adversaries have addressed the general assembly, including Soviet leader, Nikita Krushkev, Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

The Trump administration gave mixed signals on Wednesday on whether the visas would be forthcoming for Rouhani and Zarif.

“It’s not up to me. It’s up to him,” Trump told reporters, apparently unaware of the visa issue. “If it was up to me, I would let them come. I’ve always felt the United Nations is very important. I think it’s got tremendous potential. I don’t think it’s ever lived up to the potential it has, but I would certainly not want to keep people out if they want to come.”

However, in answer to the same question while on the way to Saudi Arabia, the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, was dismissive.

“We don’t talk about the granting or absence of granting of visas,” Pompeo told journalists. “I would say this: if you’re connected to a foreign terrorist organization, it seems to me it would be a reasonable thing to think about whether they ought to be prevented to attend a meeting which is about peace.

“The actions that the Iranian regime took violated the UN charter,” the secretary of state added, saying he had raised the issue with the UN secretary general, António Guterres on Tuesday.

The US has imposed broad and far-reaching sanctions against Iran, including personal sanctions against Zarif, for his connection to Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. Rouhani has not been personally designated, but has said there can be no talks with the US until sanctions against Iran are lifted.

The Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, is also unlikely to attend the general assembly, in the wake of abdominal surgery. Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has cancelled his appearance after elections put his political future in doubt.