Mark Hosenball andMichael Isikoff
With barely two months left in office, the Bush administration is moving toward restoring partial diplomatic relations with Iran—a country President Bush once denounced as a part of the "Axis of Evil."
An administration plan to open a "U.S.-interests section" in the Swiss Embassy in Tehran has been endorsed by career State Department officials and has won the backing of some senior policymakers inside the White House, according to administration officials who asked not to be identified talking about sensitive matters. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice favors the move but is reviewing details before making a final recommendation to the president. The United States has not yet asked the Iranian government if it would accept such a delegation, though in the past Iranian officials have indicated an interest in the idea. An administration official said an announcement of such a move was likely "before Thanksgiving."
The change would likely be interpreted as a retreat from past administration policies aimed at isolating the Iranian regime. It could create opportunities—and pitfalls—for the incoming foreign-policy team of President-elect Barack Obama. The new president's approach to such issues as Iranian support for Shiite militias in Iraq and Tehran's nuclear program is certain to receive intense scrutiny.
As recently as last summer, Vice President-elect Joe Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, expressed strong approval for the notion of a U.S.-interests section in Tehran. However, officially the Obama campaign and transition team is declining to discuss the subject. Obama's team has not been consulted on the Tehran plan, said one administration official. Not only is the current administration under no legal obligation to consult with its successors, but the incoming administration might find it advantageous for outgoing policymakers to take responsibility for potentially controversial foreign-policy moves like this, the official said.
In what might be a gesture to placate remaining administration hardliners before the new diplomatic initiative is launched, the Treasury Department announced on Wednesday that it was tightening U.S. economic sanctions on Iran. The new regulations will stop U.S. banks from processing transactions by foreign banks that indirectly involve Iran. The Treasury said it was taking this action to crack down on alleged efforts by the Iranians to support terrorism and advance its nuclear interests.
Over the last two years, factions within the Bush administration have squabbled over the "interests section" proposal—which would partially restore a U.S. diplomatic presence in Tehran, ties that have been broken since the 1979-1980 U.S. Embassy hostage crisis. Administration hard-liners allegedly have vehemently opposed such a development, and only a few months ago associates of Vice President Dick Cheney reportedly were seriously discussing the possibility of a U.S. or Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear sites. Some hard-liners still argue strongly against the plan, as demonstrated in a new broadside by Michael Rubin, an American Enterprise Institute scholar who advised Pentagon officials before the Iraq war. But Rice and other administration officials have argued that the proposal should move ahead.
A U.S.-interests section in Tehran would be comprised of a small team of American diplomats working from an office inside the Swiss Embassy. Such an office—similar to, but probably smaller than, the one the State Department maintains in Havana—would expand diplomatic contacts between the United States and Iran. But it would not constitute the re-establishment of full U.S. diplomatic relations between the two countries, ruptured when a mob of radicalized Iranian "students" invaded the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and held dozens of U.S. personnel hostage for more than a year. Iran already maintains a small interests section based in Pakistan's embassy in Washington, as well as a fully accredited diplomatic mission to the United Nations in New York.
Arguments in favor of re-opening a U.S. diplomatic mission in Tehran, however limited its purview, have been advanced both by liberal proponents of greater U.S. diplomatic engagement with Iran's theocratic regime and by some conservative hard-liners advocating confrontation with Iran. One conservative argument in favor of the idea is that it would demonstrate to the world that the United States, which under the Bush administration has spent much energy bashing Iran but little on diplomacy, is going the extra mile to try to persuade Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions.
If such U.S. diplomacy fails, the conservative argument goes, then the world (and the American public) might be more inclined to take more dramatic action to quash Iran's nuclear program—such as a bombing attack. Moderate and liberal advocates of a wider U.S. diplomatic opening to Tehran argue the only sensible way forward is through diplomacy.
U.S. officials said the diplomatic thaw would have other benefits. A visible American presence in Tehran could help ease relations by making it easier for Iranians to obtain travel visas to the United States. Cultural "outreach" programs could dispel myths and suspicion about the United States. At the same time, it would also give U.S. officials a greater ability to monitor what is happening on the ground in Iran.
Terror Watch appears weekly on Newsweek.com.
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