New York Times
November 4, 2004

Librarian of Congress on a Rare, Discreet Visit to Tehran

By Douglas Jehl

WASHINGTON, Nov. 3 - James H. Billington, the librarian of Congress, is in Iran this week on the first visit by a notable United States government official to Iran in 18 years, administration officials said Wednesday.

The unannounced visit was confirmed by the Library of Congress after it was disclosed by the Federation of American Scientists, an independent policy group in Washington. The library said that the purpose of Dr. Billington's trip was "purely cultural" and that he was traveling at the invitation of Muhammad Kazem Mousavi Bojnourdi, the director of the National Library of Iran.

While cultural visits have occurred before, administration officials said they believed Dr. Billington to be the highest ranking American official to travel to Iran since 1986, when Robert McFarlane, then the national security adviser, led a delegation that made a secret visit in an attempt to cultivate a relationship with moderates in the Iranian government.

The State Department spokesman, Richard A. Boucher, said he would not "attach any special importance" to Dr. Billington's visit.

Relations are tense between Washington and Iran over Tehran's nuclear program. This week also is the 25th anniversary of the takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran and the seizing of hostages during Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979, which prompted Washington to sever diplomatic relations.

An administration official said Dr. Billington's travel had been approved by the State Department and the National Security Council as a "people-to-people outreach that falls short of supporting the government of Iran." A Congressional official said Senator Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican who is chairman of the Joint Committee on the Library, also approved.

In the past, the United States has used scientific and cultural exchanges with the Soviet Union, China and other countries to smooth the way for improvements in diplomatic and political relations. Iran's openness to the visit is also telling because it has resisted some past efforts by the United States to establish closer cultural ties.

Administration officials said they regarded the trip as a step toward promoting a Middle East partnership authorized by Congress in 2002 to encourage democracy and human rights in the region. They said there was no particular significance in the timing of the trip, and said the decision not to publicize it reflected concerns about security and Iranian sensitivities.

The Federation of American Scientists said the trip had been arranged by a private group, Catalytic Diplomacy, at the request of the Library of Congress. The group's president is Jeremy J. Stone, a former president of the scientists' federation. In 1999, Mr. Stone organized a nongovernmental exchange agreement between the National Academy of Sciences and the Iranian Academy of Sciences.

The federation said Dr. Billington and his delegation were expected to conclude a formal agreement on library exchange with Iranian officials, and to return to the United States late on Friday. A Congressional official said the delegation included another senior official of the library. As head of the Library of Congress, Dr. Billington is an official of the legislative branch of government. No members of Congress or senior Congressional aides are known to have traveled to Iran since diplomatic relations were severed.

An administration official said Dr. Billington was briefed by the State Department in advance of his trip.

A spokeswoman for the library, Helen Darlymple, said the library had long been interested in expanding its collection of Iranian publications. The process of collecting those publications "has been curtailed since the Islamic Revolution in 1978-79," Ms. Darlymple said, "and the Library wishes to ensure that Congress is well served with printed, digital and other materials in different formats that are available not only in Persian but also in the other languages of Iran."

To varying degrees, American administrations have for years used informal diplomatic channels to maintain contact with Iranian government officials in meetings in third countries. But the Bush administration ended most such contacts in early 2003 because of what administration officials described as indications that the Tehran government was harboring members of Al Qaeda.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company