- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Bush administration on Wednesday left the decision on opening a U.S. diplomatic post in Iran to President-elect Barack Obama, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice calling the move “something the United States might want to pursue.”

Miss Rice also said that Washington will not push for quick NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine, a move previously rejected by some European allies.

The administration has debated the idea of opening an interest section in Tehran, similar to the one in Havana, with the authority to issue visas, since at least 2005. A senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the United States was ready to act on Aug. 7 but postponed the announcement because of the war in the Caucasus. Later, the official said, concern over influencing the U.S. presidential election campaign prevented a decision.

“At this late moment, I think it is probably better that this decision be left to the next administration,” Miss Rice told reporters at the State Department.

“That is something the United States might want to pursue … Something that reaches out to the Iranian people is very important [and] eyes on the ground is also very valuable.”

Iranians currently must travel to Turkey or the United Arab Emirates to apply for a visa.

Karim Sadjadpour, an expert on Iran at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the idea was shelved for now because of mutual concerns in Washington and Tehran.

“You need other confidence-building measures first, such as cooperation in Iraq and Afghanistan to establish a different tone and context,” Mr. Sadjadpour said.

The U.S. closed its Tehran Embassy after its seizure during the 1979 Islamic revolution, in which 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days. U.S. interests in Iran are represented by Swiss diplomats, but they do not have authority to issue visas.

A U.S. presence in Tehran would have also given Washington its first opportunity for direct, open information about Iran in three decades. The senior U.S. official said that he did not expect Iran to agree immediately to such a proposal but that a U.S. request would have opened a dialogue between the adversaries that the Obama administration could have continued.

Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, said he was disappointed by the decision.

“It is yet another missed opportunity to make sure he [Mr. Bush] would leave some positive legacy in the Middle East by doing something long overdue,” Mr. Parsi said.

Mr. Sadjadpour said it might be wise to wait until after Iranian presidential elections in June in which President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad faces opposition because of a poor economic record.

Since Mr. Ahmadinejad’s election in 2005, Iran has accelerated a program that could give it the ability to make nuclear weapons. Iran said Wednesday that it now has more than 5,000 centrifuges operating and enriching uranium at a facility at Natanz, 160 miles south of Tehran.

The West accuses Iran of seeking to build nuclear bombs, but Tehran denies the claim and says it has the right under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to make fuel to generate electricity.

Miss Rice is scheduled to participate in a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels next week, where the issue of membership for Ukraine and Georgia will be discussed.

At the April NATO summit in Bucharest, the Romanian capital, some European allies opposed Washington’s attempt to issue so-called membership action plans (MAP) for the two former Soviet republics.

“There does not need, at this point in time, to be any discussion of MAP,” she said, referring to the road maps that typically precede NATO membership.

Georgia‘s NATO aspirations have been complicated by the fighting in August. Georgia attacked the enclave of South Ossetia and Russia retaliated, crushing Georgia’s military.

• Barbara Slavin contributed to this article.

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