Has the time come to send American diplomats back to Iran?

A nonpartisan report argues that US policy toward Iran has been crippled by the absence of American diplomats in Tehran

Senior U.S. officials have indicated that if a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran is reached, the U.S. would consider asking Tehran to allow American diplomats back into the country.
Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

It’s an idea that has been considered several times but never implemented for fear of looking soft or facing rejection: sending U.S. diplomats back to Iran.

In a report, an Iranian-American organization is suggesting the time has come to ask Iran to allow U.S. diplomats to return for the first time since the 1981 hostage crisis. Under the recommendation, Americans would staff a U.S. interests section in Tehran, a step short of restoring formal diplomatic relations. And senior administration officials have indicated that the issue could be brought to the table — but only if a comprehensive nuclear deal is reached first.

The Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA), a Washington-based non-partisan group, commissioned the report (PDF) by former U.S. foreign service officer Ramin Asgard. Asgard, who previously directed the government’s Iran Regional Presence Office in Dubai — a default base for U.S. Iran watchers — argues that Washington’s policy toward Iran has been crippled by the long absence of American diplomats. At present, U.S. interests in Iran are represented by the Swiss, but they provide only limited services for American citizens.

“We have no locus of policy discipline,” Asgard told an audience at the Atlantic Council, where the report was launched on Wednesday. Without American diplomats in Iran, Asgard said U.S. policy had deteriorated into a Hobbesian “state of nature” in which foreigners, pundits and “self-appointed Iranian intermediaries with divergent motives” have competed to define U.S. objectives.

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Successive U.S. governments, as well as Iranian ones, have paid a price for this state of affairs. Iranian-Americans and their relatives in Iran — as well as countless other Iranians seeking to come to the United States — have been adversely impacted in part by a U.S. visa system that John Limbert, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Iran, called “a disgrace.”

At present, Iranians seeking visas to come to the U.S. must go to third countries, a process that is expensive, cumbersome and unreliable. 

PAAIA, which frequently polls Iranian-Americans, has found overwhelming support for sending U.S. diplomats to staff an interests section in Iran that could issue visas. In 2011, 73 percent of the community backed the proposal, according to Morad Ghorban, director of government affairs and policy for the group.

“Our office gets dozens and dozens of calls” each year from Iranian-Americans whose relatives are trying to come to the U.S. for family celebrations, funerals and emergency medical care but cannot obtain visas in time, Ghorban said. Iranians seeking to study abroad also face obstacles and have to pay hefty fees — in the case of men who have not performed military service — each time they leave Iran. Obtaining a visa may take several trips to U.S. consulates in the United Arab Emirates, Armenia or Turkey, Ghorban said.

Limbert said that “it’s hard to think of a worse system” than the one the U.S. currently has for managing the visa process for Iranians. “What U.S. interest is served by harassing grandmothers?” he asked.

At the same time, Limbert, who is perhaps best known as one of 52 American diplomats held hostage by Iran’s revolutionary government from 1979 to 1981, said Iran would need to guarantee the safety of Americans returning to Tehran and minimize if not eliminate anti-American demonstrations held every year on the anniversary of the takeover.

Limbert said he was not “looking for an apology” for the embassy seizure, but “I would also like to see some sort of signal from the Supreme Leader (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) and the Revolutionary Guards that I’m not going to let that happen again.”

While the Iranian political system has evolved since the days of the revolution, divisions between factions could still menace returning Americans, Limbert said, especially given ongoing nuclear negotiations and the “very sensitive balance” between supporters of President Hassan Rouhani and hard-line opponents of Rouhani’s outreach to the West. American diplomats returning to Iran before conclusion of a comprehensive nuclear agreement risk becoming “pawns in a very tough contact sport,” Limbert said.

However, Asgard — while stating that Iran should reaffirm the Vienna conventions on the safety and security of diplomatic personnel and property — said there was no reason to wait in putting forward the request given the time it would take to implement such a complex bureaucratic decision on both sides.

The proposal to send American diplomats to staff an interests section in Iran has been considered several times since 2005. The idea was included on a list of State Department options in the fall of that year, but dropped after it was leaked to the Wall Street Journal.

It was resurrected in 2007 only to fade as the U.S. failed to reach agreement with Iran on a process to negotiate over Iran’s nuclear program and the George W. Bush administration worried, in the words of former national security adviser Stephen Hadley, about looking “squishy” on both Iran and North Korea in terms of U.S. domestic politics. In August 2008, after the U.S. dropped its precondition that Iran suspend uranium enrichment as the price for U.S. participation in multilateral talks, the Bush administration was on the verge of putting forward the request again but decided against it when Russia and Georgia went to war, according to a senior U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity. 

The Barack Obama administration did not pick up the idea initially, in part because it had been associated with the Bush administration, according to the senior U.S. official. Administration representatives say the focus now is on the nuclear talks that resumed this week in Vienna and reached agreement on an agenda for further negotiations. Administration officials suggest, however, that they might raise the topic if the talks succeed — and Iran is amenable.


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