Small steps forward with Iran

 In Iran

While the heated rhetoric between Iran and the US continues, there are some encouraging signs that we may be slowly moving towards opening up lines of communication with Iran. At the beginning of October, the US Treasury Department Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which oversees sanctions against countries like Iran, announced in a rare move that it was granting permission for the American Iranian Council (AIC), a US-based research and policy think tank, to open an office in Tehran.

The AIC says it is the only US-based non-governmental organisation to receive such a licence in recent years and hailed OFAC’s decision as "extraordinary". Hooshang Amirahmadi, AIC’s founder and president, said the council would "use this great opening to more effectively advance its mission of promoting dialogue and understanding between the peoples and governments of Iran and the United States at a time of immense promises and perils for their relations."

Meanwhile, rumors swirl about the possibility of the US opening a diplomatic interest section in Tehran, a first step towards more normal diplomatic relations. An interest section would also facilitate contact between the US and Iran, making it easier for Iranians to obtain visas to study or visit family in the US. In an article on foreign policy in this Sunday’s Washington Post, David Ignatius wrote:

With Iran, probably the biggest foreign policy challenge for the next president, the Bush administration plans to take a helpful step in mid-November by announcing the opening of a U.S. interest section in Tehran. That will break the ice and make it easier for the next president to begin the kind of dialogue with Iran that’s necessary. The administration had planned to announce the interest section in August, but Russia’s invasion of Georgia and worries about U.S. election politics intervened. Administration officials assure me that it’s still coming.

His statement contradicts a story from earlier this month saying that opening an interest section is unlikely.

The officials said a decision had been made to leave the decision to the next U.S. president because it could be seen as a reward for Iran’s nuclear intransigence, especially when Iran policy has become a key part of the heated campaign between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain….

Thus, opening an interest section, or de facto embassy, in Tehran could be interpreted as a Republican president helping a Republican nominee by neutralizing a distinction that might make the Democrat appealing. Or, it could be seen as hurting McCain by leaving him to defend a more hard-line position than the current Republican president’s.

Iran’s response to the idea of an interests section is encouraging, and could signal an opening for the US and Iran to begin talking to each other.

Iran has yet to receive a request from the United States to open an interests section here, officials said Monday, but analysts added that such a proposal would probably get a positive response….

Iran’s position marks a change from when any talk of relations with the United States was taboo in Iranian politics. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who oversees all foreign policy issues, would have to agree to the opening of any U.S. representative office in the country. Since the idea was floated in Washington in August, Iranian politicians who are in regular contact with him have been positive and have made clear that such a request from the United States would be considered.

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