When the Washington Post last week ran an op-ed by its Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt, the State Department responded with what for it was warp speed. Hiatt had pushed the idea of the U.S. opening an “interests” section, a la Cuba, in Tehran.
After dropping the idea about two years ago, State Department officials had been mulling it again. Hiatt’s article outed them and that same day, a traveling Secretary of State Condaleezza Rice told reporters, “We want more Iranians visiting the United States…Iranian artists in the U.S., American sports people in Iran. We are determined to find ways to reach out to the Iranian people.”
In recent years U.S. interests in Iran have been handled by the Swiss embassy in Tehran and there is no processing of visas to the U.S. there. These must be handled through a U.S. office in Dubai — a cumbersome procedure. While many Iranians — particularly young people — express outright admiration for the U.S., very few can visit us. After years of fruitless carrot-and-stick offers by the U.S. and Europe to persuade the Iranian regime to stop processing enriched uranium, the opening of an American-staffed interests section would signal our intention to connect directly with Iranian citizens, large numbers of whom want democracy in their country.
Two years ago, the Committee on the Present Danger published a comprehensive “policy paper” of recommendations regarding Iran. While U.S. behind-the-scenes efforts have had some success in crimping Iran’s international banking transactions, the CPD paper called for more, including an embargo on refined petroleum products (for being oil-rich, Iran doesn’t have enough refineries to supply its own needs).
At that time Iran was getting four visas a year to our one. The CPD paper called for parity, with the emphasis on visas to the U.S. to be on cultural, academic and sports figures. If the U.S. calls for opening an interests section, it should demand parity in visas. If that were not granted, we should reduce Iranian visas to the U.S. to the same number we have had in recent years and this should include a ban on visas for any Iranian government officials or their relatives.
For Americans who might criticize the idea of a full-scale U.S. interests section in Tehran as a sign of weakness, our formal request to the Iranian government should be coupled with the understanding that if it is not granted, we will expel the 36 Iranian diplomats currently ensconced in offices on Wisconsin Avenue in Washington, nominally under the aegis of the Pakistan embassy.
Despite the drumbeat of negativity from the far left in the U.S., the Bush Administration will be leaving several of its foreign policy areas in relatively good condition: North Asia (China, Japan, North Korea); the increased strength and responsibility of Iraq’s government; Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez increasingly isolated — for example. Opening a “listening post” in Tehran will give us direct access to Iranians in all walks of life and especially those who like and admire the U.S.
The State Department is often timid and slow to process new ideas. The idea of a full-fledged interests section is being revived after a brief discussion of it at about the time the CPD paper was published. Whether the current motivation is the Bush “legacy” or a desire to get the Iran issue off dead center, it is a idea that can reap benefits and should be adopted.
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