A delegation of Iranian officials paid a quiet visit to the United States this week to meet with corporate leaders and a senior State Department representative at a business forum in Pittsburgh on Tuesday.
The rare trip occurred just days after a controversial Iran-focused trade forum was held in London, to much public outcry. Iran remains under strict international economic sanctions, and some foreign policy experts say such events undermine sanctions and weaken U.S. leverage in nuclear negotiations.
Greg Sullivan, the State Department’s senior adviser for strategic communications on Iran, joined the Iranian delegation at the OASIS 7th Annual Business Conference at the Fairmont Hotel in Pittsburgh on Tuesday.
Sullivan gave a brief speech on cultural diplomacy at the conference before turning the stage over to Ali Moradkhani, Iran’s deputy minister of culture and Islamic guidance.
Other delegates in attendance were Iran’s former nuclear negotiator Hossein Mousavian, Ministry of Culture official Farzin Pirouzpey, the director of the Fajr Music Festival Ali Torabi, and Mehdi Faridzadeh of the International Society for Iranian Culture.
Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the Pittsburgh visit appeared to be an attempt by Mousavian "to mobilize the U.S. business community as a pressure group calling for removal of the sanctions regime."
"The Islamic Republic's motive for participating at the conference is understandable: Ambassador Hossein Mousavian, who is a brilliant diplomat, desires to convey the message to the U.S. business community that Iran is open for business," said Alfoneh.
The State Department, which said it had no role in organizing the trip other than approving the delegation’s visas and sending Sullivan to speak at the conference, said the visit was designed to promote cultural diplomacy and to its knowledge did not involve business discussions.
"We are not aware of, and would certainly not approve of, any discussions or meetings outside of the discussions about cultural collaborations," a State Department official told the Washington Free Beacon.
The title of the conference was "Growing Business Between the U.S. and the Middle East," and it was officially billed as "a high-level gathering of Middle East Ministries, American and Middle East decision makers from leading global companies focused on growing business opportunities between the United States and the countries of the Middle East."
The panel topics focused on the energy, technology and medical sectors. Conference sponsors included PhRMA, Comcast (CMCSA), Marcellus Shale, and the Westinghouse nuclear power company.
According to the State Department, the main purpose for the visit was to arrange a musical exchange between Iran and Pittsburgh.
"Our understanding is that Mr. Moradkhani’s visit is for the purpose of discussing a possible collaboration between the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and the Tehran Symphony Orchestra," a State Department official told the Free Beacon.
But the organizer of the business conference, Simin Curtis, who was also involved in the Pittsburgh musical diplomacy talks, disputed this.
She said that the Iranian delegation did not meet with the Pittsburgh symphony, and that plans for collaboration between the orchestra and Iran were put on hold in March.
"This [trip] was not about the symphony," said Curtis, who serves as president of the American Middle East Institute in Pittsburgh. "[State Department officials] were aware that that trip has been delayed. … Initially we worked with the State Department on the idea, but it’s been postponed."
Curtis said she coordinated the Iranian delegation visit with the State Department. She said the trip was intended to focus on cultural diplomacy in general, adding that she invited Sullivan to speak on the issue at the conference.
According to the Curtis, the interactions between the Iranian delegation and the business community were minimal, despite the event’s industry focus.
"The deputy minister was sitting at a table watching the proceedings, he was not interacting with the businesses actually—which would have been nice—but he was just watching the proceedings," said Curtis. "We had no special meetings set up, but we wanted them to be at the event."
Alfoneh said he was puzzled by the State Department’s decision to issue visas to the delegation for such a trip in the first place.
"Presence of the Islamic Republic delegation in Pittsburgh is certainly not likely to strengthen the U.S. bargaining position in the nuclear negotiations," he said.
He added that the U.S. government "sends the wrong signal by allowing the delegation from Tehran to participate at a public conference."
Earlier this year, Moradkhani’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance hosted a book fair in Tehran featuring the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Holocaust denial literature.
"Mr. Ali Moradkhani, Mr. Mehdi Faridzadeh, Mr. Farzin Pirouzpey, and Mr. Ali Torabi, have all been and still are involved in enforcement of censorship of literature, cinema, and music in Iran," said Alfoneh. "Does State Department approve of censorship? If not, why issue visas to the enforcers of censorship?"