WASHINGTON – The Bush administration has shelved plans to set up a diplomatic outpost in Iran, in part over fears it could affect the U.S. presidential race or be interpreted as political meddling, The Associated Press has learned.
The proposal to send U.S. diplomats to Tehran for the first time in three decades attracted great attention when it was first floated seriously over the summer but has now been placed on indefinite hold as November's election nears and Iran continues to defy demands to halt suspect nuclear activities, officials told the AP.
Two administration officials familiar with the matter spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal administration deliberations on the sensitive subject.
The officials said a decision had been made to leave the decision to the next U.S. president because it could be seen as a reward for Iran's nuclear intransigence, especially when Iran policy has become a key part of the heated campaign between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain.
Obama has called for unconditional direct talks with the leaders of so-called rogue regimes like Iran and North Korea, assuming that groundwork laid by lower-level officials indicated that the top-level talks would be fruitful.
McCain has ridiculed the suggestion as naive.
Thus, opening an interest section, or de facto embassy, in Tehran could be interpreted as a Republican president helping a Republican nominee by neutralizing a distinction that might make the Democrat appealing. Or, it could be seen as hurting McCain by leaving him to defend a more hard-line position than the current Republican president's.
Either way, the administration concluded that now was not the time.
"There is no desire to inject this into the campaign," the second official said.
The idea's demise represents the end of any marquee efforts to remake the U.S. relationship with its most formidable Mideast adversary before President Bush leaves office. Although Bush once called Iran part of an "axis of evil," along with North Korea and prewar Iraq, and says Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is dangerous, he also had allowed a variety of tentative overtures to Tehran.
The best-known effort would have had Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sit down for negotiations over Iran's disputed nuclear program, with the tantalizing prospect of expanded talks on other subjects. She said she would go anywhere, including Tehran, to have those conversations if Iran met its side of the bargain.
That offer went nowhere, in part because Iran refused to meet the U.S. terms to begin talks.
The diplomatic office would have served several purposes. It would have provided a public face for the U.S. government in a country where suspicion of the United States runs deep, perhaps increasing U.S. influence. It also might have made it easier for Iranians to apply for visas to visit the United States.
The idea of creating an interest section in Iran similar to the one the United States runs in communist Cuba has been around for some years. But it gained new traction in June when veteran diplomats began to look again at the plan with Rice's blessing.
Rice never publicly endorsed the concept but allowed it was one of several things the administration was considering to improve contact between the Iranian and American people. At one point, there was speculation that an announcement on the matter might be made in late August, which came and went without any action.
Although Iran has a small interest section in Washington, the two countries do not have diplomatic relations and the U.S. has had no official presence in Tehran since the 1979 Islamic revolution and subsequent takeover of the American Embassy and hostage crisis. U.S. interests in Iran are currently handled by the Swiss.
While the Bush administration has given up on opening the interest section in its waning months in office, it has gone ahead with promoting unofficial contacts with Iran.
Late last month, the Treasury Department gave special permission to the private American-Iranian Council to open an office in Tehran. The office plans to promote educational and cultural exchanges by hosting round-table discussions and conferences.
The Princeton, N.J.-based council will join a handful of other think tanks and policy institutes that have similar licenses from the Office of Foreign Assets Control to work in Iran, which is under heavy U.S. sanctions over its nuclear program and support for groups the United States labels terrorist organizations.
The executive director of the council, Brent Lollis, expressed hope that the opening of the office would improve ties between Iranian and American academics and eventually lawmakers. He also said he hoped it could help pave the way for the opening of a U.S. interest section in Tehran.
"We are in full support of an interest section, and we hope that it will come about," he said. "This is a good beginning for that."