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Ahmadinejad likely to get U.S. visa for meeting

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will likely be granted a visa to attend the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference that opens in New York next week, U.S. officials said on Wednesday.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad smiles after reading a message from Brazil's President's Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva uring an official meeting with Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim in Tehran, April 27, 2010. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley confirmed that the applications for Ahmadinejad and his delegation had been submitted in Berne, Switzerland, and he indicated they were likely to be approved.

“We have certain responsibilities as the host of the U.N.,” Crowley said. “Any foreign official who is coming to the U.N. for official business is normally granted a visa.”

The United States and other Western powers accuse Iran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons in violation of its commitment under the Non-Proliferation Treaty not to do so. Iran has said its nuclear program is solely to generate electricity.

Iran and the United States have no diplomatic relations.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki was originally scheduled to lead the Iranian delegation at the May 3-28 conference at U.N. headquarters, which is intended to assess compliance with the landmark arms control pact.

The treaty is designed to halt the spread of atomic weapons and encourage the elimination of existing arsenals.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will lead the U.S. delegation. The current schedule for the opening of the conference has Clinton and Mottaki scheduled to be the fifth and seventh speakers on Monday afternoon.

U.N. officials said it was not clear if Ahmadinejad, now the highest-ranking official expected at the conference, would take a more prominent place on the program or stick to the current speaking order to respond to Clinton.

SANCTIONS DISCUSSIONS

The United States, Britain, France and Germany have persuaded China and Russia to help draft a fourth U.N. sanctions resolution against Tehran for refusing to suspend its nuclear enrichment program. Uranium enrichment can produce fuel for power plants or weapons.

The United States wanted a swift agreement on a fourth resolution in order for the full Security Council to approve it before the NPT meeting. But negotiations have dragged on for weeks and diplomats say the six powers are far from a deal.

Ahmadinejad’s presence could prove an unwelcome distraction -- and provide the Iranian leader with a high-profile platform as sanctions talks continue on the sidelines.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who will host the conference, said if Ahmadinejad attends and “he brings some good constructive proposal in resolving Iranian nuclear issues, that will be helpful.”

But Ban told reporters he did not know what position Iran would take. He urged Tehran to return to talks with the major powers and cooperate fully with the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Analysts say the NPT has been battered by North Korea’s withdrawal, Iran’s insistence on pursing nuclear technology that could help it make bombs, and developing nations’ charges that big nuclear powers are ignoring disarmament commitments.

Western powers would like the NPT review to agree on a plan of action for beefing up the treaty to make it harder for states like Iran and North Korea to acquire sensitive technology and the capability to produce nuclear weapons.

Egypt and other Arab states are demanding that any final declaration that might come out of the conference include a renewed call for the creation of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East -- meaning that Israel would have to disarm.

Israel is widely believed to have a sizable nuclear arsenal, although it has not acknowledged it.

Many NPT signatories would also like the review conference to call for universality of the treaty -- meaning that Israel, Pakistan and India should be pressured to sign and get rid of any warheads they have. North Korea withdrew from the NPT in 2003 and tested nuclear devices in 2006 and 2009.

NPT review conferences are held every five years.

Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed and David Alexander in Washington, editing by Stacey Joyce

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