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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

US to open 'interests section' in Tehran?

An opinion piece in Monday's Washington Post discusses the possibility that the United States may open an 'interests section' in Tehran much like the one it has maintained in Cuba since 1977. This would be short of full diplomatic recognition, but may open a channel of communication to the Iranian people and eventually to their government. The 'trick' is how to do it without easing the pressure on Iran to give up its nuclear program.
Iran sticks out as an unsolved problem. Iranian proxies in Lebanon and Gaza are riding high, Iran's nuclear program is steaming ahead, and last fall's intelligence estimate -- which misleadingly gave the impression that Iran had abandoned its nuclear ambitions -- took the wind out of the administration's campaign against it.

So officials continue to explore the possibilities of new initiatives. They dispute the accepted view of Iran as "10 feet tall and on a roll," a senior official told me, given its recent setbacks in Iraq and its own internal divisions and economic troubles. "They are dangerous, and clever, and good at asymmetric warfare," this official said, "but I think they have a lot of vulnerabilities -- and I think we can exploit them."

It's in that context that the administration would propose opening an interest section, maybe paired with new sanctions or some other sign of resolve. Many Iranians feel well disposed toward Americans but have no direct contact with this country. At the same time, policymakers here feel hobbled by having no diplomats in Iran to report on the mood of the country. A kind of "listening post" in Dubai handles visa requests and tries to monitor political developments from afar, but that's no substitute for a mission on the ground.

The Iranians might say no, though with difficulty, given that they already operate an active interest section of their own on Wisconsin Avenue in Glover Park. (Based on my experience, they are not yet, despite their presence here, wildly outplaying the United States in the outreach department. "There's no one available at the time to answer your questions, all right?" I was told by someone who then wished me a fine day and hung up.) And if they did say no, administration officials argue, it would only enhance America's image and make the Iranians seem scared of contact.

That has been one Democratic argument in favor of seeking more engagement with the regime, of course, and administration officials worry that political opponents here, as well as the regime in Tehran, would portray a proposal to open an interest section as an easing of administration policy not to talk unless Iran suspends uranium enrichment.

"It's not a softening," one official said. "It does allow us to reach out to youth groups, to talk to dissidents. It's something the regime wouldn't like.
In Berlin on Monday, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sidestepped questions about the possibility of opening an 'interests section' in Tehran.
Speaking to journalists who asked about the report en route to an international conference in Berlin on Palestinian security issues and donor pledges, Rice said U.S. policy toward Iran was well-known -- and that she did not want to comment on "internal deliberations".

"The United States has been for some time trying to reach out to the Iranian people in various ways," Rice said. Iranians could travel to Dubai to get U.S. visas, she said, but acknowledged it might not be convenient for them to do so.

"We want more Iranians visiting the U.S.," she said, adding that she favoured cultural exchanges such as visits by artists and athletes. "We are determined to find ways to reach out to the Iranian people."
DEBKA is claiming that the idea of setting up an 'interests section' in Tehran has some pretty nasty motivations from an Israeli perspective.
DEBKAfile’s Washington sources, report that by the dramatic step of establishing a US interests section in Tehran, 27 years after relations were severed with the Revolutionary Republic, the Bush administration would hope to wash its hands of any Israeli plan to strike Iran’s nuclear sites this year.

Behind the step are US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and her former deputy Nicholas Burns; its disclosure to the American media attests to White House backing.
I don't buy DEBKA's analysis on this one. While Rice's motivation may be to wash her hands of an Israeli strike, the Bush administration as a whole seems to be supporting Israel in getting rid of the Iranian threat in any way it can. Witness, for example, Michael Mullen's visit to Israel later this week, and the apparent coordination of the 'dry run' for the Iranian operation with the United States. From Bush's perspective, it's much more likely that the motivation is to establish a listening post to help Iranian dissidents on the ground. And that probably would not be a bad thing.


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