Our Man in Iran?

Iran's latest missile tests occurred just as there have been glimmers of progress in nuclear negotiations between Tehran and the Western powers. Whether or not those talks succeed, it’s time for Washington to open a diplomatic post in Tehran.

A high-level official has told me that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is seeking President Bush’s approval to establish a United States Interests Section in the Iranian capital. This is a smart idea that Democrats and Republicans should support.

Iran is an anomaly in the Middle East. In Iran, unlike in the Arab world, America is seen as an adversary primarily by the government while most of the Iranian people see it as a country of freedom and moderation.

American policy should build on this phenomenon. The more Iranians see the real America, rather than the propaganda version portrayed in their reactionary media, the more they will push for democratic rights at home and moderate behavior abroad. This is where our diplomats come in. The main purpose of sending them to Iran would be to simplify travel for Iranians to the United States.

America has not sent diplomats to Iran since the 1979 hostage crisis. Washington’s interests are managed by the Swiss government in Tehran. But as in other hostile countries, like Cuba, Washington could set up an interests section in Tehran even while formal diplomatic relations are suspended. Housed in the Swiss Embassy, this post would process visa requests and handle other consular matters.

Such an outpost should not be seen as or used for an intelligence operation. Rather, it would give American diplomats an opportunity to observe the country’s complex politics firsthand. There are no current American foreign service officers who have ever been posted there. Setting up an interests section should help ensure that American policy is not born of ignorance.

For those who insist on comparing Washington’s poor relations with Iran to the cold war, establishing a diplomatic presence should be a no-brainer. Didn’t we strive to make it easier for Soviet and Chinese citizens to visit the United States during the ideological struggle with Communism?

The Bush administration’s record of diplomacy has been poor. Paradoxically, however, it is in the cases of North Korea and Iran, which President Bush branded as part of an axis of evil, where Secretary Rice has been trying to eke out some progress in the administration’s final months. Her department has made some gains in the nuclear talks with North Korea. A diplomatic post in Iran, although not a simple logistical matter, would also be a limited but significant step forward.

After seven years of refusing to engage in direct, unconditional talks with Iran, the White House has achieved almost nothing. There has been little or no cooperation from Iran to stabilize Iraq. And despite recent maneuverings, it is unlikely that a solution to the impasse over Iran’s enrichment of uranium will be found in the next few months.

To be fair, the Bush administration has been more skillful in its second term. The United Nations Security Council has imposed modest sanctions on Iran. But even this new unity among major powers has failed to stop Iran from moving steadily toward being able to produce nuclear weapons. Nor has it slowed the advance of medium-range missile technology, as this week’s test of the Shahab 3 missile demonstrated.

It is possible, of course, that Tehran will refuse this diplomatic presence. In that case, Washington will win points for openness with the international community and Iran’s government will face anger from its own people, who clearly want to travel to the United States.

Alternatively, Tehran may agree but also up the ante by asking for direct flights between America and Iran. However, the same logic of promoting people-to-people exchanges should apply to direct air links.

Major progress on Iran will have to await a new administration that will move beyond the diplomatic equivalent of the silent treatment and create a more powerful mix of incentives and disincentives. In the meantime, the idea of opening a diplomatic post is wise policy and should be judged on its own merits.

James P. Rubin, a teacher at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and an assistant secretary of state for public affairs during the Clinton administration.