US ‘Still Looking’ at Establishing an Interests Section in Iran

By Patrick Goodenough | October 6, 2008 | 5:17 AM EDT

The United States has not shelved a proposal to establish an interests section in Iran, although there are no public signs that the Iranian government is ready to embrace the idea.

( – The United States has not shelved a proposal to establish an interests section in Iran, although there are no public signs that the Iranian government is ready to embrace the idea.
An interests section facilitates relations between people of two countries that do not have diplomatic relations, typically dealing with legal issues such as birth and death registrations, and cultural and educational affairs.
Another, unrelated non-governmental initiative aimed at improving ties between the U.S. and Iran also has drawn skeptical responses in Iran.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said at the weekend that the Bush administration continues to consider the idea of an interests section.
“I think it’s an interesting idea,” she told reporters en route to Astana, Kazakhstan. “But, you know, we are going to take a look at it in the light of what it could do for our relationship with the Iranian people.”
Asked whether the step remained a possibility before the end of the Bush administration in January, Rice said, “We are still looking at the idea.”
Earlier, the Associated Press reported that the administration had decided to set aside the proposal – first reported over the summer – because of the impact the move could have on the American presidential election campaign.
The question of holding talks with leaders of Iran and other countries hostile to the U.S. has come up frequently during the campaign, first emerging as an issue when Sen. Barack Obama, during a July 2007 Democratic primary debate, said he would meet with such leaders without precondition during his first year in office as president. (The candidate who would later lose the Democratic nomination to Obama, Sen. Hillary Clinton, said she would not.)
Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain called Obama’s position naive, and Obama repeatedly has said since then that his opponents have mischaracterized his position by suggesting he would hold talks without doing any preparation or having lower-level exchanges first.
The U.S. and Iran broke diplomatic ties in April 1980, following the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Fifty-two U.S. diplomats and others were held from Nov. 1979 to Jan. 1981.
The relationship has been marked by tensions ever since, exacerbated by issues including the accidental shooting down by a U.S. warship of an Iranian passenger jet over the Persian Gulf in July 1988;  Iranian links to terrorism in Lebanon, Israel and Iraq; and in recent years, by Tehran’s controversial nuclear programs and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s belligerent rhetoric.
The Swiss Embassy in Tehran currently represents the interests of the U.S. in Iran, while the Islamic Republic’s interests in the U.S. are looked after by the Embassy of Pakistan in Washington.
The U.S. has an interests section in Havana, Cuba, headed by a chief of mission and staffed by diplomats. Based in the former U.S. Embassy building, it has consular, political and economic offices.
Reaction from Tehran to the possibility of the U.S. opening an interests section has been low-key but largely negative.
When the reports first emerged, the speaker of the Iranian parliament, Ali Larijani, said the U.S. was clearly not serious about improving ties because for two years it had refused Iranian proposals to establish direct flights between the two countries.
Writing Monday in the Iran Daily, a newspaper produced by the official Irna news agency, commentator Mohammad Asgari was also dismissive about the proposal.
Asgari argued that Iran had over the years tried to reestablish diplomatic ties with the U.S., citing Ahmadinejad’s letter to President Bush and invitations to debate world issues on the sidelines of U.N. meetings in New York, as well as his declared willingness to meet with Obama and McCain this year.
Asgari attributed the failure of such efforts to the Jewish lobby and political differences in the U.S.
“It is proven that due to internal rifts between various political enclaves plus the destructive role of the Zionist lobby, Washington cannot adopt a proper policy for putting two-way relations back on track,” he said.
Critics of the Iranian regime are not impressed by the idea of a U.S. interests section.
“It must be clear that the problem with those ruling in Iran is not just a building in downtown Tehran; rather it goes much deeper than that,” Reza Shafa, an expert on Iran’s intelligence networks, said in an article posted on the Web site of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), an exiled opposition group based in Paris.
He suggested that looking for moderation in Iran or expecting the regime to amend its behavior was a waste of time. A policy of regime change was the only answer.
’Beneath Iran’s dignity’
Also making headlines is a decision by the U.S. Treasury’s office of foreign assets control (OFAC) to grant a license to a U.S.-based non-governmental organization to open an office in Iran. OFAC permission is required because of U.S. sanctions in place against Iran.
If it gets Iranian permission to go ahead, the Princeton, N.J.-based American-Iranian Council (AIC) says it will be the only U.S.-based peace and conflict resolution NGO operating in Iran.
The move would be “a first step on the path to the institutionalization of a normalized relationship,” executive director Brent Lollis said in a statement last week.
Founded in 1997, the non-profit AIC lobbies for improved relations and to have U.S. trade sanctions lifted.
AIC president Hooshang Amirahmadi is an academic with dual citizenship who tried to run for president of Iran in 2005. His candidacy was one of more than 1,000 that were rejected by the powerful Council of Guardians, a body appointed by “supreme leader” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Only eight candidates were eventually approved, and Ahmadinejad won in a second round runoff.
Iran’s Press TV reports that Amirahmadi has met frequently with high-ranking Iranian officials over the years, especially in recent months.
Last August, Amirahmadi wrote on his return from a month-long visit to Iran that he had “been engaging in extensive shuttle diplomacy with American, Iranian and British officials, law makers and civil society leaders.”
He said he had found “positive reaction” in Iran to the interests section idea.
But a senior Iranian lawmaker, Alaeddin Borujerdi, on Sunday dismissed Amirahmadi as an “unimportant” representative of the U.S. and said the government must not grant the AIC permission to open an office.
Borujerdi, who chairs the parliamentary national security and foreign policy committee, told the Iranian Students’ News Agency that it was “beneath Iran’s dignity to allow such a person to open an office in Tehran.”
Speaking last week in New York, where he is attending the U.N. General Assembly session, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said the U.S. needs to change its policies before bilateral ties can improve.
A State Department spokesman referred queries about the AIC license to OFAC, saying only “our policy has not changed. We encourage efforts to increase people-to-people contacts between the people of Iran and the people of the United States in order to expand mutual understanding, as long as parties involved work in accordance with U.S. laws and regulations.”
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow