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Pro: U.S. embassy in Iran could help defuse Mideast time bomb

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John B. Quigley
February 14, 2009
EDITOR’S NOTE: The writer is addressing the question, Should the U.S. reopen its long-closed embassy in Iran?

Hints by President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about overtures to Iran raise the prospect that the United States might open an embassy there.


The United States cut off diplomatic relations after the 1979-80 hostage-taking of U.S. personnel, abandoning its embassies and outlying consular posts.


Re-establishing diplomatic relations would offer the possibility of engaging Iran on the contentious issues that separate our countries. Iran’s nuclear program has been issue No. 1 of late. Iran as a major oil producer affects energy supply.


Switzerland has served as an official go-between for Iran and the United States since 1980, handling U.S. affairs in Tehran. Somewhat asymmetrically, Iran has an “interests section” in Washington, operating under the auspices of Pakistan. It is staffed by Iranian personnel and functions much like an embassy. We have nothing of the kind in Tehran.


Even with the hostility that has characterized U.S.-Iran relations of late, the Bush administration recognized that we are shooting ourselves in the foot by this approach.


Over the last year it seriously, and publicly, considered opening an “interests section” in Tehran, under Swiss auspices. In November, however, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced that the matter would be left for Obama to figure out.


The lack of staff on the ground makes it hard for the United States to provide protection for Americans who run into difficulties in Iran. In March 2007, an ex-FBI agent, Robert Levinson, went missing in Iran while on a trip there. U.S. officials suspect he is in custody of the Iranian government. Iran denies knowing his whereabouts. To date, the only representations the United States has been able to make on Levinson’s behalf have been through the Swiss.


With no consular offices in Iran, the United States cannot provide the everyday services that the United States offers our citizens abroad. Citizens need passports. They need foreign documents attested. If citizens die abroad, their families often need help with burial arrangements.


Importantly, if U.S. citizens are arrested, consuls visit them in jail and help with their legal defense. Iranian-Americans have been arrested in Iran on charges involving political opposition. The United States has done little for them.


Issues of state can also be dealt with more effectively with direct relations. Last January the United States charged publicly that Iranian naval vessels had threatened U.S. naval vessels in the Strait of Hormuz. The United States made a formal diplomatic protest but could only do so via the Swiss.


Operating through a third country, as the United States has done, can pose delicate problems. Switzerland not long ago explored a gas deal with Iran, a move the United States viewed as inconsistent with efforts to isolate Iran. Any difference of view with Switzerland obviously complicates its role as our representative.


Britain, like the United States, broke diplomatic relations with Iran after the Islamic revolution, but it restored relations in 1997 in order to engage Iran directly.


Full relations with diplomats on the ground would make it easier for the United States to keep an ear to the political winds in Iran and to assess its intentions.


Opening an embassy in Iran might, to be sure, pose practical problems. The Swiss recently appointed a woman, Livia Leu Agosti, as ambassador in Tehran, the first woman to be appointed by any country as ambassador there. Leu Agosti has decided to observe the Islamic dress code when she appears in public in Tehran, out of deference to local custom.


So the United States is now being represented in Tehran by a woman wearing the hijab. If the United States were to appoint a woman, fashion style might be as important as diplomatic style.


Obama’s major indication to date of policy toward Iran is his selection of Dennis Ross as special envoy in the region. That appointment could limit any real engagement with Iran. Ross is identified with Israeli positions, and Israel is super-hawkish on Iran.


John B. Quigley is a professor of law at Ohio State University. Readers may write to him at The Michael E. Moritz College of Law, Ohio State University, 55 W. 12th Avenue, Columbus, Ohio 43210, or via e-mail Quigley.2@osu.edu.

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