U.S. News

U.S. still mulling diplomatic office in Iran

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States believes it could be useful to have a diplomatic outpost in Tehran as a way of reaching out to the Iranian people and is still considering the idea, the State Department said on Tuesday.

A view of Tehran's telecommunications tower (C, top), which is currently under construction, in north-western Tehran, April 9, 2007. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl

In recent months, the Bush administration has been debating whether to open up a U.S. Interests Section in Tehran, similar to one it has had in the Cuban capital Havana since 1977.

The United States has no diplomatic relations with Iran but is looking for ways to reach out to its people as a sign Washington’s problems are with the country’s government and not its citizens.

Having an interests section would stop well short of full diplomatic relations but involve sending U.S. diplomats to Tehran for the first time in 30 years.

“I don’t have any announcements for you at this point, but it is still an interesting idea,” said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack when asked whether a decision was likely to be made soon to open up an interests section.

“We’re always looking for ways to reach out to the Iranian people and to talk about areas where we think we have a shared interest,” he added.

He said the United States had found having an interests section in Cuba very useful.

The Washington Post’s columnist David Ignatius wrote over the weekend that the Bush administration planned to announce the opening of a U.S. mission in mid-November. Iranian officials have made clear they would carefully look at such a request.

Asked whether the U.S. government had approached Iran about the idea or to secure office space, McCormack declined to respond. “Nothing more for you on it, beyond it’s an interesting idea.”

Switzerland currently handles U.S. interests in Tehran while Iran maintains an interests section at the embassy of Pakistan in Washington.

The U.S. government has become increasingly disgruntled with Switzerland over its recent energy deals with Tehran.

“We have publicly stated our concerns about a number of different countries entertaining possible energy deals with the Iranian government. We’ve talked to them about that. We’ve mentioned it in public and certainly we convey any concerns we have in private,” said McCormack.

The United States cut off diplomatic ties with Tehran during the 1979-1981 hostage crisis, in which a group of militant Iranian students held 52 U.S. diplomats hostage at the American embassy for 444 days.

Last month, the Bush administration took the rare step of granting permission for a U.S. non-governmental organization to open an office in Iran.

Despite this apparent opening, the Bush administration has made clear it intends to keep piling on U.S. sanctions against Iran over its refusal to give up sensitive nuclear work the West believes is aimed at building an atomic bomb and Iran claims is for peaceful power generation.

Editing by Cynthia Osterman