February 20, 2014, Washington, D.C. – On Wednesday, the South Asia Center of the Atlantic Council held a panel discussion on the pros and cons of opening a U.S. Interests Section in Tehran staffed by American diplomats. The discussion surrounded the release of a new report published by the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA) and written by the Atlantic Council’s Iran Task Force member Ramin Asgard, titled “Re-establishing a U.S. Diplomatic Presence in Iran: Advancing U.S. National Security and Serving American Citizens.”
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. 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.
The panel discussion included author Ramin Asgard, former U.S. Foreign Service Officer and former political advisor at U.S. Central Command, Ambassador John Limbert, former deputy assistant secretary of state for Iran and former U.S. hostage in Tehran, and Morad Ghorban, PAAIA’s Director of Government Affairs and Policy. The discussion was moderated by Barbara Slavin, Senior Fellow of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center.
The report finds that the establishment of a U.S. Interests Section in Iran would greatly advance U.S. national security. During the past 34 years, the absence of a U.S. diplomatic presence in Iran has hampered America’s ability to understand and successfully impact events related to Iran as well as the greater Middle East. A diplomatic presence in Iran could help inform policy formulation and execution by assessing and reporting on realities on the ground and effectively engaging key actors.
The report also highlights the importance of an official U.S. presence to the Iranian American community. An Interests Section 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. In addition, an Interests Section may also simplify the visa process for Iranians wishing to visit family or for medical issues as well as processing student visas. The report also recommends that one or more Public Affairs Officers with experience in cultural diplomacy be assigned to the Interests Section to facilitate academic and cultural exchanges.
During the discussion, Asgard addressed the opposition, risks, and obstacles in re-establishing such a presence. In regards to the idea that it would betray the Iranian civil society and human rights groups, for example, he noted that the question to ask is not whether the Iranian government has serious issues in the area of human rights. “The proper question is whether the past 34 years in the [current state] have improved the state of human rights in Iran,” he said. “The answer is clearly no.” He went on to explain that a U.S. diplomatic presence in Iran would directly engage all sectors of Iranian society, including minorities, reformists, dissidents, journalists, and scholars, among others.
Limbert agreed that diplomatic presence in Iran is necessary for better ACS and consular services in Iran. However, he also urged caution. “Despite recent breakthroughs in diplomacy, the internal political situation in Iran remains sensitive,” said Limbert. “In the current climate, our people may become pawns in a contact sport.”
A 2011 National Public Opinion Survey of Iranian Americans by PAAIA shows that a large majority (73%) of those surveyed support the establishment of a U.S. Interests Section in Iran that would provide consular services and issue visas but would not constitute the resumption of diplomatic relations between the two countries. 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.
Click here for the Atlantic Council’s summary and materials of the panel discussion.