Time for US diplomatic presence in Iran?

Last week, Great Britain announced plans to re-open its embassy in Tehran, which has been closed since 2011. As the U.S. and its allies hold discussions with Iran over its nuclear program and options to stabilize Iraq, Washington should reconsider opening a limited diplomatic post in Iran that would allow it to capitalize on strategic interests in the region.

The idea of establishing an American-staffed interests section in Iran was first considered by the George W. Bush administration and had the support of then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. In 2013, the Atlantic Council's Iran Task Force, chaired by Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat, recommended the opening of an interests section in Tehran in a report titled Time to Move from Tactics to Strategy on Iran. An interests section would be responsible for protecting America's interests in Iran. It would not, however, be equivalent to the establishment of formal diplomatic relations with Iran.

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A report published by the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA) in February, and written by Ramin Asgard, former U.S. Foreign Service Officer and former political advisor at U.S. Central Command, found that the absence of a U.S. diplomatic presence in Iran during the past 34 years has greatly hampered America’s ability to understand and successfully impact events related to Iran. 

To rectify this strategic loss, the United States does not need to open a full-fledged embassy or re-establish formal diplomatic relations, but an American-staffed interests section in Tehran could help inform policy formulation and execution by assessing and reporting on realities on the ground and effectively engaging key actors and all sectors of Iranian society.  It would help advance and explain U.S. policy to ordinary Iranians by engaging local media and help enhance U.S. broadcast programming to Iran by conveying a more accurate feel of the Iranian street. 

Furthermore, an American-staffed interests section may also process non-immigrant visas, facilitating student visas and family reunions and helping with medical emergencies. Within the interests section, a public affairs section could also facilitate academic and cultural exchanges, an issue that the Obama administration has repeatedly been on the record as supporting. 

Finally, an interests section staffed with American diplomats would greatly enhance American Citizen Services (ACS) for Americans traveling to Iran, such as U.S. passport issuance and renewal and consular visitation and support for Americans arrested, detained, or imprisoned in Iran, among other services. 

For the hundreds of thousands of Iranian Americans that travel to Iran, these services are critical. A recent national public opinion survey of Iranian Americans commissioned by PAAIA found that over 80 percent still have family in Iran and a third (approximately 300,000 people) travel to Iran once every two-to-three years. 

Poll results also show that 83 percent of Iranian Americans favor the establishment of a U.S. interests section in Iran.  In a community often split on policy issues, this overwhelming consensus, and its constancy through the years, speaks volumes.

Studies also show that Iran is rather unique in the Middle East in that a vast majority of Iranians have a favorable view of America.  A diplomatic post in Tehran can help build on this good will, a process that could eventually empower moderate voices in Iran. 

Whether or not the U.S. reaches any agreements with Iran in the coming weeks, resuming a limited American diplomatic presence in Iran would advance U.S. national security and serve American citizens. 

Ghorban is director of Government Affairs and Policy for the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA). Varkiani is the Community Relations Liaison for PAAIA.

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