Washington, D.C. July 17, 2008 – In recent weeks, the media have reported that the U.S. government is considering establishing a United States Interest Section in Iran. An interest section would be responsible for protecting America’s interests in Iran by, among other things, providing consular services to Americans visiting Iran, processing visa applications for Iranians wishing to travel to the United States and monitoring developments on the ground. Opening an interest section will not, however, amount to the establishment of formal diplomatic relations with Iran.
Setting aside assessments of political and diplomatic pros and cons potentially associated with such an initiative, there are important and compelling practical reasons favoring the establishment of an American interest section in Iran. These reasons are largely overlooked, however, given the broader interest in the overall state of the United States’ relations with Iran.
First, there is a serious and growing need for American consular services in Iran. Consular services include re-issuing lost or stolen passports, assisting U.S. citizens in circumstances where they require urgent medical help, have been a victim of crime, or have suffered in natural disasters, and facilitating transmission of funds in cases of need. These services are very important to safeguarding the interests of the many Iranian Americans who travel to Iran every year.
The United States is home to a sizeable Iranian American community, many of whom are first generation immigrants who have chosen to live in this country because of its promise of liberty and opportunity, and who are its devoted and loyal citizens. Like first generation immigrants from any other country, many Iranian Americans have relatives still living in Iran whom they naturally visit periodically. Yet, for nearly three decades, there has never existed an American presence in Iran that could address needs that may arise for these United States citizens when they travel there.
Nor are Americans of Iranian descent the only Americans who visit Iran. For example, aside from periodic academic, athletic and professional exchanges, an increasing number of American travel companies now offer opportunities for trips to Iran. These travelers also have practical needs for consular services.
Second, in addition to serving American citizens when they are in Iran, an interest section will serve them by facilitating the travel of relatives from Iran to the United States. Currently, if Iranian relatives of American citizens wish to travel to the U.S., they must go to third countries to obtain visas. This is an unnecessary burden, and in the case of the elderly and sick as well as those without substantial financial resources a true hardship. The hardship is particularly severe in cases where prompt medical attention is required.
The issuance in Tehran of visas for visits to the United States not only will promote family reunions, but will also facilitate travel for the many Iranians interested in cultural and educational visits to the United States. Press reports have quoted Secretary Rice as having acknowledged the value of such visa issuance, and add that such efforts would go a long way toward enhancing American goodwill toward the Iranian people.
Press reports have not reflected serious national security concerns with respect to establishing an American interest section in Iran. On the contrary, these reports highlight, for example, that the United States has for a long time (since 1977) had an interest section in Cuba. Perhaps further to this point, Iran itself has also had an interest section in Washington, D.C. for more than twenty years without reciprocity.
PAAIA is focused on domestic U.S. affairs as they relate to the Iranian American community, and is not a platform for promoting U.S. foreign policy. However, we recognize that there are substantial arguments on practical grounds, as outlined above, to support the proposition that the establishment of an American interest section in Iran would greatly benefit Americans, including Iranian Americans. In furtherance of the interests of the Iranian American community, PAAIA has reached out to Administration officials to inquire further about this matter and to ensure that deliberations within the Administration will be as broadly informed as possible by the views of the Iranian American community. To that end, we encourage you all to please contact us with your specific thoughts on the impact of establishing an interest section in Tehran so that we will able to reflect our community’s perspective in future policy debates in an informed manner.