With President Bush trying to burnish his diplomatic credentials on a series of fronts, the State Department is pushing the envelope by suggesting it may be time to open a permanent American presence in – of all places – Tehran.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has recently floated the idea of opening a US interests-section office in the capital of Iran – the last member of Mr. Bush's 2002 "axis of evil." An interests-section office, which is basically an embassy without an ambassador, allows for a US presence in a country with which the United States has no formal diplomatic relations.
The US has had no permanent presence in Tehran since the storming of the American embassy there and the taking of US diplomats as hostages during the 1979 Iranian revolution. The idea of now establishing a US office reflects other shifts in Bush's second term from confrontation and isolation of enemies to engagement and multilateralism. What the initiative is not, some experts say, is any indication of a shift by the administration to begin talks with the regime in Tehran. Indeed, with new reporting out this week about clandestine White House efforts to undermine Iran's rulers, some observers see the idea of a US presence in Tehran more as a ruse than as a serious proposal.
"If anything, I see this as a way to embarrass the Iranians," says Jon Alterman, a Middle East specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. "It's not a serious diplomatic consideration, but more of a public-diplomacy gambit. It's being floated as one way to deal with a country with which we are fighting a war of ideas."
Secretary Rice and other State Department officials say the point of opening such an office in Tehran, which all say remains in the exploratory stage, would be to allow the US to establish closer ties to the Iranian people. As such, the office would be an extension of a policy that the administration began last year by launching a $75 million effort to promote democracy in Iran. The effort has aimed to boost contacts with students, labor unions, and rights and dissident political groups.
One purpose of an interests-section office would be to perform consular duties – such as issuing visas – that the US is not able to carry out in Iran. Currently, Iranians wishing to visit the US must apply with the nearest US consulate, across the Persian Gulf in Dubai.
Moving such functions to inside the country would be a plus for America's public-relations standing with Iranians, some US officials argue. "The [Iranian government is] terrified of an American presence in Tehran," Mr. Alterman says, "not least because of the numbers they'd have lining up for visas."
Still, Iran's initial response was not to slam the door on the idea – at least not publicly. The official news agency IRNA said last week that Tehran is ready to consider an official request from Washington for such an office. Iran already has an interests section in Washington, so denying the US if it ever got to making a formal request would appear to be difficult. Still, Iran's parliamentary speaker and former nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, threw cold water on the proposal by calling it "misleading." If the US were sincere about closer ties to Iran, he said, it would take up Tehran's two-year-old proposal for direct flights between the US and Iran.
The official Iranian response may turn more negative after a report this week by New Yorker writer Seymour Hersh claiming that the US is stepping up covert efforts to destabilize the Iranian regime.
Revelations of US special operations inside Iran are not new, with reports surfacing last year of US forces carrying out clandestine operations. But in a report in this week's issue of The New Yorker, Mr. Hersh says that Bush requested – and received congressional approval for – up to $400 million for a secret plan targeting Iran's nuclear program and undermining the regime, largely through financing of opposition groups.
Already last year, some international human rights groups claimed that the initial impact of the Bush administration's $75 million pro-democracy initiative was to undermine the very groups the program aimed to help. That was true, they said, because recipients of the program's assistance were even more closely watched by the government and targeted for reprisals.
Such a scenario is one reason some US experts with firsthand knowledge of the US interests section in Cuba say that an office in Tehran would not have much positive impact.
"Working with some of the dissidents is what they do with the office in Cuba, and it doesn't have much effect," says Wayne Smith, a former US diplomat who headed the US interests section in Havana from 1979 to 1982. "If what we are intending is to go to Tehran and act just as we have in Havana, it will fail."
Alterman of CSIS says there are plenty of good arguments to be made for the US having such a presence in Iran – starting with a need for reliable information. "The American public would be shocked if they knew how little we know about a country as important as Iran," he says. "We have remarkably few Americans with a sustained experience in Iran … and that means uninformed people with very strong points of view are setting policy."
Mr. Smith, now head of the Cuba Project at the Center for International Policy in Washington, says he supports the idea of interests sections if they are intended to promote dialogue between governments. He also sees potential in what the next administration could do with a US office in Tehran.
If such an office is established, "they [in the Bush administration] are not going to be around to decide how it would be used," he says. "So it could turn out to be a very positive step."