"This is a real missed opportunity," said council president and CEO Craig Snyder, "and I see it as very unfortunate that this could have been the result of some sort of deliberate action on the State Department's end."
The council said it informed the State Department in early December that Khazaee had accepted an invitation to speak on Feb. 5. By Jan. 8, the council and the Iranians had sent a formal request to the State Department concerning Khazaee - who needs permission to travel beyond a 25-mile radius from New York City.
The State Department, Snyder said, quietly denied permission by failing to respond to the travel request.
"The alternative to this being a purposeful decision by the State Department is bureaucratic incompetence," he said. "I really don't think that's what happened, because we were in touch with them via e-mail on multiple occasions."
The State Department declined to comment, issuing a brief statement Friday night that read in part: "As a matter of policy, we do not discuss the details of these restrictions or requests for waivers."
The State Department, Snyder said, flinched and ultimately caved over the prospect of a top Iranian diplomat's speaking freely to an American audience.
"Administrations of both parties over many years have drawn a distinction between private diplomacy vs. public or citizen diplomacy, and they're often afraid of the latter because they don't control it," Snyder said. "I think that this administration is not necessarily interested in a rapid expansion of public or citizen contacts between the two countries."
One top think-thank official, however, disagreed with Snyder's take on the situation.
"My own experience with these things is that they tend to be bureaucratically and procedurally protracted, even when they're one-off queries," said Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy. "I'd be very hesitant to presume that someone in Washington didn't want Ambassador Khazaee to interact with an audience in Philadelphia."
Mahoney said she saw little incentive for the Obama administration to limit Iran's access to direct conversation with the American public.
During Tuesday's State of the Union address, the president, evoking John F. Kennedy's and Ronald Reagan's negotiations with the Soviet Union, used the bully pulpit to drum up support for diplomacy with Iran.
"If anything, given the struggles between the president and Congress over the question of sanctions, I would think there would probably be some receptivity to allow the Iranians to go out publicly and make the case for diplomacy," Mahoney said. "If they wanted to say no, they would have said no."