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Toehold in Tehran?

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By Fred Hiatt
Monday, June 23, 2008

A smart idea to shake up U.S. policy and reach out to the Iranian people is being debated in Washington, but the debate isn't taking place within or between the presidential campaigns. It's going on inside the Bush administration.

Senior officials at the State Department and beyond are mulling a proposal to open an interest section in Tehran, similar to the one the United States has operated in Havana since 1977. This would fall short of full diplomatic recognition, but it would open a channel to the Iranian people and, maybe, eventually, to the regime as well.

The idea has been under discussion for close to two years and could be adopted within weeks -- though officials continue to worry about how to package such a proposal without having it appear, one said, "as a sign of weakness." They worry about the effect of such a signal on Iran, on U.S. negotiating partners in Europe and on domestic politics, given the clash between Barack Obama and John McCain about the wisdom of negotiating with Iranian leaders.

Beneath the debate is an effort by the administration to bequeath to its successor a foreign policy on something of an even keel, and a belief that Iran may be the relationship furthest from achieving that.

Administration officials, not surprisingly, dispute the conventional wisdom that the next president will inherit a hopelessly losing hand in world affairs. Senior officials argue that they have managed well the most important relationships in Asia -- the U.S.-Japan-China triangle -- and that relations with Europe have improved since the first term, as President Bush's recent tour confirmed. Leaders in Mexico and Colombia value U.S. friendship, while Venezuela's anti-American president is on the defensive. The brightening outlook in Iraq has kindled a more optimistic outlook overall.

But no matter how charitably one views the record (and that global roundup leaves out Zimbabwe, Darfur, Russia, Burma, Pakistan and Afghanistan, to name just a few challenges), Iran sticks out as an unsolved problem. Iranian proxies in Lebanon and Gaza are riding high, Iran's nuclear program is steaming ahead, and last fall's intelligence estimate -- which misleadingly gave the impression that Iran had abandoned its nuclear ambitions -- took the wind out of the administration's campaign against it.

So officials continue to explore the possibilities of new initiatives. They dispute the accepted view of Iran as "10 feet tall and on a roll," a senior official told me, given its recent setbacks in Iraq and its own internal divisions and economic troubles. "They are dangerous, and clever, and good at asymmetric warfare," this official said, "but I think they have a lot of vulnerabilities -- and I think we can exploit them."

It's in that context that the administration would propose opening an interest section, maybe paired with new sanctions or some other sign of resolve. Many Iranians feel well disposed toward Americans but have no direct contact with this country. At the same time, policymakers here feel hobbled by having no diplomats in Iran to report on the mood of the country. A kind of "listening post" in Dubai handles visa requests and tries to monitor political developments from afar, but that's no substitute for a mission on the ground.

The Iranians might say no, though with difficulty, given that they already operate an active interest section of their own on Wisconsin Avenue in Glover Park. (Based on my experience, they are not yet, despite their presence here, wildly outplaying the United States in the outreach department. "There's no one available at the time to answer your questions, all right?" I was told by someone who then wished me a fine day and hung up.) And if they did say no, administration officials argue, it would only enhance America's image and make the Iranians seem scared of contact.

That has been one Democratic argument in favor of seeking more engagement with the regime, of course, and administration officials worry that political opponents here, as well as the regime in Tehran, would portray a proposal to open an interest section as an easing of administration policy not to talk unless Iran suspends uranium enrichment.

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

Let's hope that line can be sold inside the administration in time for useful action. President Bush would be doing his successor, whoever he is, a favor by putting this forward now and taking the political heat -- which would probably turn out to be lukewarm in any case.

fredhiatt@washpost.com


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