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IRAN: U.S. ponders diplomatic upgrade in Tehran

June 24, 2008 | 11:04 am

Elahiyeh

Even as the Bush administration talks of tightening sanctions against Iran to increase its international isolation, it is also contemplating a move to bolster its own diplomatic presence in Tehran by expanding its puny office there into something more robust, according to news reports.

The Associated Press today cited anonymous U.S. diplomats and officials saying Americans were considering setting up a diplomatic office in Tehran that could process visas and conduct cultural outreach but still remain short of a full embassy.

A piece Monday in the Washington Post described a debate inside the administration about the wisdom of expanding the U.S. diplomatic footprint in Tehran. One official told the Post:

It's not a softening. It does allow us to reach out to youth groups, to talk to dissidents. It's something the regime wouldn't like.

Initial Iranian reaction to the idea was frosty. "We do not trust the Americans," Musa Qorbani, a politician close to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, told The Times. "After a few days, we may figure out their motivations and what their intention is, then we will give our comment."

Under the auspices of the Swiss Embassy, the U.S. currently operates an office off Africa Avenue, most commonly called Jordan Avenue, in north Tehran. Inside a villa, Swiss and Iranian employees conduct minor consular services for Iranian Americans. It's well guarded, of course, given the fate of the last U.S. diplomatic mission in Iran, which in 1979 was overrun by radicals who took embassy officials hostage for 15 months.

Unnamed U.S. officials told news agencies that Americans were unhappy with the Swiss, especially after they signed a huge gas deal with Iran over the objections of Washington and wanted to chart their own course with Iran.

But the Swiss gas deal could just be a convenient excuse to correct a dramatic diplomatic imbalance between Washington and Tehran.

Basically, Iranians have far more eyes on the ground in the U.S. than America has in Iran. And Americans know it. Officials at the State Department, the Pentagon and the White House are continually summoning the Tehran envoys of European allies to grill them for information about the political and social situation on the ground in Iran.

The current U.S. interests section in Tehran falls far short of the Iranian interests section in Washington. Under the auspices of the Pakistani Embassy, Iranians have established something of a "consul-ette" on the second floor of an office building on Wisconsin Avenue in Washington.

There, with portraits of Ayatollahs Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei looming, patrons can renew passports or apply for tourist visas. Iranian newspapers are piled up while a huge television is tuned to an Iranian satellite channel. At least three Iranian officials work in Washington.

Iranians also have a diplomatic presence at the United Nations, where Tehran's envoy to the world body pens opinion pieces for American newspapers and appears at think tank forums.

That's not even to mention the tens of thousands of Iranian dual nationals or U.S. residents who travel regularly back and forth. Very few Americans without Iranian heritage travel to Iran.

According to the Associated Press and the Washington Post, U.S. officials are envisioning something like the U.S. interests section in Havana, which processes visas for Cuban visitors to the U.S. and hosts dissidents during holiday fetes.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declined to confirm or deny the debate. But she told reporters traveling with her through Germany that she wanted more contacts between the U.S. and ordinary Iranians, who now must obtain visas at U.S. consulates in Turkey or in the United Arab Emirates city of Dubai.

"We know that it's difficult for Iranians sometimes to get to Dubai," she told reporters Monday, the AP reported. "We want more Iranians visiting the United States.... We are determined to reach out to the Iranian people."

Borzou Daragahi in Beirut and Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran

Photo: A view of Elahieh, an upscale north Tehran district where many foreign embassies are located. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

P.S. The Los Angeles Times issues a free daily newsletter with the latest headlines from the Middle East. You can subscribe by registering at the website here.

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