Rice: Iran diplomats plan shelved

But secretary of state says setting up US diplomatic outpost in Islamic Republic remains viable.

Condoleezza Rice 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Condoleezza Rice 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday that a decision whether to send US diplomats to Iran for the first time in three decades will be left to President-elect Barack Obama's administration. She said setting up a diplomatic outpost, or interest section, in Iran remains viable, but it is now too late for President George W. Bush's foreign policy team to move ahead with the plan that was floated at midyear. "At this late moment, I think it is probably better that this decision be left to the next administration," Rice told reporters at a State Department news conference. Rice said the Bush administration had hoped to go ahead with it, but a number of developments, including Russia's war with Georgia in August, made it impractical to do so. "We have continued to pursue how that might go forward, but, frankly, the point at which we most likely would have done it, we were right in the middle of the Georgia-Russia conflict and then a number of other international events I think just made it difficult to do," she said, without elaborating. The Associated Press reported in early October that the administration had shelved the idea and would leave it for its successor in part due to the impact it might have had on the US presidential election as well as the suspicion that it might be an unmerited reward to Iran as it continued to defy international demands to halt suspect nuclear activity. In addition, some in Washington believed that opening the interest section might have bolstered hard-line Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ahead of elections set for next year in Iran, officials said. The idea's demise is the end of any marquee effort to remake the US relationship with its most formidable Middle East adversary before Bush leaves office in January. Although Bush once called Iran part of an "axis of evil," along with North Korea and President Saddam Hussein's Iraq, and contends that Ahmadinejad is dangerous, he also had allowed a variety of tentative overtures to Teheran. The best-known effort would have had Rice sit down for negotiations over Iran's disputed nuclear program, with the tantalizing prospect of expanded talks on other subjects. She said she would go anywhere, including Tehran, to have those conversations if Iran would meet its side of the bargain. That offer went nowhere, in part because Iran refused to meet the US terms to begin talks. The interest section would have provided a public face for the US government and perhaps have increased US influence. It also might have made it easier for Iranians to apply for visas to visit the United States. The idea of creating an interest section in Iran similar to the one the United States runs in communist Cuba has been around for some years. But it gained new steam in June when veteran diplomats began to look again at the plan with Rice's blessing. Although Iran has a small interest section attached to Pakistan's embassy in Washington, the two countries do not have diplomatic relations. The United States has had no official presence in Tehran since the 1979 Islamic revolution and subsequent takeover of the US Embassy and hostage crisis. US interests in Iran are handled by the Swiss. Rice never publicly endorsed the concept - she called it only "an interesting idea" - but she allowed it was one of several things the administration was considering to improve contact between the Iranian and American people. Others include educational, cultural and sports exchanges. She said officials had begun laying the groundwork for an interest section after Bush decided it was "something that the United States might want to pursue." But she noted that the plan never got to the stage where the Iranian government was contacted about it.