J'lem wary of US interests section in Iran

State Department official: "We're looking at ways to make reaching out to the Iranian people easier."

bush big face 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
bush big face 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Israeli officials still fear that President George W. Bush will open a American interests section in Teheran, despite the strong message US official Stuart Levey carried to them this week that the outgoing administration intends to stay the course of isolating Iran diplomatically. The issue of an office in Teheran, which could deal with cultural matters and issue visas, came up in recent talks Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni held with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Levey, who is the under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence in the Treasury Department. Livni's spokesman would not reveal what Rice or Levey said regarding an interests section. In a conversation with The Jerusalem Post, the spokesman would only say, "We are still not certain whether they are going to go for it or not." On Sunday, during his one-day visit to Israel, Levey reassured the Israelis he met with, including Livni, that Bush's policy with respect to Iran would remain unchanged during his final two months in office. But he failed to assuage fears. Opening such an office in Iran, which has no diplomatic relations with the US and is the midst of a standoff with the international community over its pursuit of nuclear capabilities, would be a major shift in the American posture toward Iran. One State Department official told the Post on Tuesday that while American policy had not changed with respect to Iran, "We are looking at ways to make reaching out to the Iranian people easier." Livni told Rice that in a world where symbols mattered, such a move would send the wrong message to Teheran. Jerusalem has paid close attention to the statements US officials have made privately and in the press, and balanced them against statements about the need to isolate Iran made by visiting officials like Levey. This dual message has confused officials, some of whom are certain that Bush might open such an office, while others believe he would not. One diplomatic source in Israel told the Post that declarations about an interests section were a trial balloon. The idea that the US might consider such a move first became public over the summer, but any action on it was delayed by the presidential election campaign, among other issues. Yet according to an article in Sunday's New York Times Magazine, Rice said that "an interests section continues to be important to us." Those words and other public references by Rice to the interests section have convinced Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department official now with the Brookings Institution in Washington, that "the decision has been all but made," with the question being whether it will be done under Bush or by the administration of Barack Obama. The president-elect has already expressed interest in talking with Iran. Maloney described "broad acceptance" for the initiative, on the grounds that it could open dialogue but also allow the US to be better connected to events in Iran. She added that the Bush administration has argued that an interests section would enable it to promote its "freedom agenda" and improve the image of the US in the eyes of Iranians, rather than be a concession to Teheran. She said that while the administration might want to take the step with an eye toward securing its legacy, the details would have to be worked out by the Obama administration in any case, because such a move would require complex arrangements with the Iranians, who might see it as a threat. But Iran expert Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute cautioned that Teheran would not only see an interest section as a threat but might oppose the whole enterprise as a unilateral US move. He sees the possibility that Bush would open an interests section before leaving office at "less than 10 percent," and said that simply announcing such a move without acting on it was unlikely. Aside from concerns that opening an interests section could be tantamount to conceding the nuclear issue to Iran - by, for instance, preventing any confrontation by placing Americans in harm's way - Rubin said a diplomatic presence could also become an issue in Iran's own elections next year, contrary to US interests.