Don’t mind us: US interests section in Tehran

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McClatchy is reporting that, following the presidential elections, the Bush administration will announce it intends to open an interests section in Tehran:

The proposal for an “interests section,” which falls short of a full U.S. Embassy , has been conveyed in private diplomatic messages to Tehran , and a search is under way to choose the American diplomat who’d head the post, the officials said.

BUT:

The senior administration officials said the plan to open an interests section in the Iranian capital isn’t a move to closer government-to-government ties.

Rather, they say, it is an effort to reach out to the Iranian people, many of whom are far less anti-American than their leaders are.

Among other things, the U.S. diplomats in Tehran would facilitate cultural exchanges; issue visas for Iranians to travel to the U.S.; and engage in public diplomacy to present a more charitable view of the U.S.

My guess is that framing this as not a “government-to-government” move is the result of a compromise solution to internal Bush administration debates between Iran isolaters and engagers.  But do they not realize that, for Iran’s leaders, these sorts of activities are not welcome?

As Karim Sadjadpour demonstrated in his report on Khamenei, Iran’s top leader most fears domestic nonviolent subversion from a nexus of foreign powers and internal dissidents.   This fear best explains the pattern of detentions of Iranian-American scholars and NGO workers, which sadly entered a new chapter today.

The US does little to assuage these fears. Prominent voices routinely call for regime change in Iran, and as recently as last year, Radio Farda, an American public diplomacy radio station broadcasting to Iran, was running extended specials on the history of the “color” (read: “velvet”) revolutions in the former Soviet Union.

Given the recent history and Khamenei’s worldview (to say nothing of 1953), something tells me that efforts to “reach out to the Iranian people” will be read a little differently in Tehran than in Washington.

I wholeheartedly support opening an interests section or a full embassy in Tehran, but its primary function should be to support political negotiations aimed at ending the explosive standoff between our two countries.  Public diplomacy, consular, and cultural exchanges could come in concert with political movement, but given the sensitivities surrounding US cultural influence in Iran, I doubt Tehran would see a cultural/consular interest section as desirable or even benign.

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