The Bush administration is considering setting up a diplomatic outpost in Iran in what would mark a dramatic official U.S. return to the country almost 30 years after the American embassy was overrun and the two nations severed relations.
Even as it threatens the Iranian regime with sanctions and does not rule out military action over its nuclear program, the administration is floating the idea of opening a U.S. interests section in Tehran similar to the one the State Department runs in Havana, diplomatic and political officials told The Associated Press on Monday.
Like the one in communist Cuba, an interest section, or de facto embassy, in the Iranian capital would give the United States a presence on the ground through which it could communicate directly with students, dissidents and others without endorsing the government, one official said.
It would process visa applications and serve as a center for American cultural outreach to locals, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Now, the United States has no diplomatic presence in Iran and relies on the Swiss Embassy in Tehran to serve as its "protecting power." The Swiss now pass messages to the Iranian foreign ministry on Washington's behalf and handle the affairs of U.S. citizens in the country.
The idea of a separate office under the U.S. flag was born in part out of unease about Switzerland's decision this year to sign a long term gas contract with Iran.
The United States now has a small office in the Gulf state of Dubai that handles routine visa matters for Iranians, but officials say it is not easily accessible and unable to do the work that an interests section could do.
The interests section concept is an old idea now being revisited by a very small group of diplomats and political officials at the State Department, with the blessing of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Rice would not confirm or deny the idea, which was first reported in a Washington Post opinion column on Monday.
But, without being asked, she said the United States wanted more Iranians to come to the United States and hinted that the current arrangement in Dubai was not satisfactory.
"We know that it's difficult for Iranians sometimes to get to Dubai," she told reporters Monday aboard her plane en route to a conference in Germany. "We want more Iranians visiting the United States. ... We are determined to reach out to the Iranian people."
Rice is intrigued by the idea and has asked for an analysis of its feasibility and implications, the officials said.
Iran has operated an interests section in Washington for years, processing visa applications and having eyes on the ground in the U.S. capital. But the United States has refused to have any diplomatic presence in Tehran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution and embassy hostage crisis.
The officials said Iran would be hard pressed to deny the United States permission for a reciprocal presence in Tehran.
The idea of an interests section has percolated at the State Department for several years, and was championed by the former third-ranking diplomat, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, several officials said. The renewed effort is now being led by Burns' successor, William Burns, officials said.
Asked about the possibility of opening the office, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said he was not aware of any such plans.
"I can't guarantee you that there aren't people somewhere in the U.S. government talking about it, but it's certainly not anything that's been decided nor is it anything that I would expect to see decisions on in, you know, the near future," Casey said.
In earlier incarnations, the idea was opposed by some White House officials, and at times by other officials at the State Department. Its fate in the waning days of the Bush administration is far from clear, although a variety of events in the past six months probably have given the idea greater currency.
A U.S. intelligence analysis last year concluded that Iran was not actively working to build a nuclear warhead, although it could resume such work. The conclusion took the air out of the notion that the United States might launch a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities before President George W. Bush leaves office on Jan. 20.
At the same time, U.S. diplomatic outreach to Iran has gone nowhere. Thus opening an interests section now would not put at risk fruitful talks.
William Burns, the officials said, is eager to demonstrate U.S. good will to the Iranian people even while tensions between the governments run high amid speculation that either the United States or Israel may use military force against Iran's nuclear facilities.
Burns and his backers see exchange programs and direct on-the-ground outreach to Iranians as the best way to overcome years of hostility, the officials said.