- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 24, 2008

With the U.S. and Iran barely on speaking terms for nearly three decades, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice dropped an eyepopping hint Monday that the U.S. is considering a visa office in Iran to draw more Iranian visitors to the United States.

The opening of a U.S. interests section, similar to the one the United States maintains in Cuba, would be the first U.S. diplomatic presence in the Iranian capital since Iran freed 52 American hostages in 1981 after 444 days at the former U.S. Embassy.

Moreover, much of Miss Rice’s tenure as the nation’s top diplomat has been dominated by increasing tensions over charges by the Bush administration and other Western governments that Iran is attempting to produce atomic bombs.

“We do have the station in Dubai where [Iranians] can get visas, but we know that it’s difficult for Iranians sometimes to get to Dubai,” Miss Rice said during a flight to Berlin on Monday.

“We want more Iranians visiting the United States,” she said. “We want the efforts that we’ve engaged in to have Iranian artists in the United States, American sports people in Iran. We are determined to find ways to reach out to the Iranian people,” she said.



But a U.S. diplomatic mission in Iran to issue visas?

Miss Rice declined to comment on what she called “internal deliberations” at Foggy Bottom.

That left State Department officials in Washington scrambling to deal with the inevitable questions after a columnist in The Washington Post first reported that the idea was under discussion.

How could the U.S. reconcile the practical benefits of opening an office in Tehran with its policy of trying to isolate the hard-line Islamist regime?

Current and former officials said the idea of opening an “interests section” in Tehran - a mission much smaller and lower-profile than an embassy - was first discussed a couple of years ago as an incentive for Iran to stop enriching uranium, which can be used to make nuclear weapons.

“It’s certainly not anything that’s been decided, nor is it anything that I would expect to see decisions on in, you know, the near future,” State Department spokesman Tom Casey told reporters.

A State Department official, who asked not to be named because he was commenting on private conversations, said “general discussions” on the issue were held “a couple of years ago,” but that no serious deliberations are taking place.

“It didn’t get beyond how you do that without implying greater legitimacy for the regime while actually trying to do the opposite,” the official said.

The official also suggested that the idea had been championed by R. Nicholas Burns, until recently the undersecretary of state for political affairs and the Bush administration’s point man on Iran policy.

Mr. Burns, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, declined to comment.

Iran and the United States have not had diplomatic relations since the 1979 Islamic revolution, and some U.S. officials say opening an interests section would bestow legitimacy on a regime that supports terrorism and works against American interests.

An Iranian interests section in Washington is housed at the Pakistani Embassy. The U.S. maintains a tiny interests section at the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, which does not normally issue visas.

Mr. Casey, meanwhile, welcomed EU sanctions on Iran announced Monday, tightening financial and travel restrictions on Iranian companies, including the country’s largest bank.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said in Israel that the sanctions are meant to send a message to Tehran that it should pursue negotiations.

The European Union and the United States offered Tehran a fresh package of economic and political incentives earlier this month, but Iran has rejected the only condition for negotiations: suspending uranium enrichment.

“Certainly, we’d like to see Iran choose the other path and suspend its enrichment-related activities and come to the negotiating table,” Mr. Casey said. “Ultimately though, absent that, we expect to see increased forms of diplomatic pressure and this action by the EU is part of it and certainly welcomed by us.”

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