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In contentious Tehran summit, Ban sees valuable diplomatic opening

Ban Ki-moon has not yet announced plans to travel to Tehran later this month for a summit of the Non-Aligned Movement -- a group of 120 developing governments -- and meetings with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But he is already facing mounting pressure to cancel the trip from U.S. and Israeli officials, who argue that the visit would extend political legitimacy to a regime that backs terrorism and may be pursuing nuclear weapons.

Senator Robert Casey Jr. (D-PA), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs, wrote to Ban last week to "strongly urge" the U.N. chief not to attend the summit on the grounds that Tehran supports terrorism, backs the "murderous regime of [Syrian leader] Bashar al-Assad," and routinely flouts U.N. resolutions demanding that it halt its uranium enrichment program.

"I am concerned that your presence in Tehran could serve to legitimize the actions of this regime at a critical time in the region and urge you to reconsider attending this conference," he wrote. "The international community should speak with one voice against Iran's use of terrorism and should not participate in any forum that lends credibility to the regime."

The debate about Ban's visit comes amid rising tensions between Iran and Israel, which according to Israeli press reports, is considering a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities ahead of the U.S. presidential election in November.

Ban had intended to use his visit as an opportunity to cool the rhetoric between Iran and the West while prodding Iran's leadership to strike a deal with the U.N.'s big powers that would permit greater scrutiny of Iran's nuclear program, according to U.N. officials.

The response to Ban's itinerary reflects the heightened sensitivity to engaging Iran in a year when both President Barack Obama and Senator Casey are facing reelection, according to some observers.

"Why the Washington furor? This is an election year in which Iran is perhaps the only foreign-policy issue that has political traction with any constituency in the United States," said Jeffrey Laurenti, an expert on the United Nations at the Century Foundation. "This is what a secretary-general is supposed to do -- explore any diplomatic opening. The fact that Washington is in a period when all diplomatic openings are slammed shut does not mean that the rest of the world would automatically follow suit."

The call for Ban to change his travel plans comes more than a week after Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, urged Ban in a private conversation not to visit Tehran, and a week after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu personally appealed to Ban to change his travel plans. Netanyahu issued a statement saying he'd told Ban that the visit, no matter how well-intentioned, would be "a major mistake.". "Mr. Secretary-General, your place is not in Tehran," he said.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Thursday that convening the summit in Tehran "sends a very strange signal with regard to support for the international order" since Iran is "in violation of so many of its international obligations and posing a threat to neighbors."

"We've made that point to participating countries. We've also made that point to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon," she said. But she added that if the U.N. chief proceeds with the trip, the United States would urge him to "use the visit to make the point about our broad concern as an international community," Nuland said.

In anticipation of the trip, Ban has turned up the volume in his own public comments on Iran, denouncing Ahmadinejad and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who, as Reuters reported, recently said that Israel "would one day be returned to the Palestinian nation and would cease to exist." The "Secretary-General is dismayed by the remarks threatening Israel's existence attributed over the last two days to the Supreme Leader and the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran," Ban's office said in a press statement. "The Secretary-General condemns these offensive and inflammatory statements." The U.N. chief "believes that all leaders in the region should use their voices at this time to lower, rather than to escalate, tensions," the statement continued. "In accordance with the United Nations Charter, all members must refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state."

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