WASHINGTON — The Bush administration will announce in mid-November, after the presidential election, that it intends to establish the first U.S. diplomatic presence in Iran since the 1979-81 hostage crisis, according to senior Bush administration officials.
The proposal for an "interests section," which falls short of a full U.S. Embassy, has been conveyed in private diplomatic messages to Tehran, and a search is under way to choose the American diplomat who'd head the post, the officials said.
They spoke on condition of anonymity because the step hasn't been announced and discussions of it have been limited to a small circle of government officials.
It's not known how Iran has responded. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said last month that he'd consider the idea, which first surfaced over the summer.
The U.S. had close ties to Iran's late shah, who was overthrown in 1979. Iran's ruling circles, however, are suspicious of U.S. attempts to expand its influence in the country.
Earlier this month, an Iranian official said that Tehran would refuse to allow a U.S.-based nonprofit group, the American-Iranian Council, to operate there after it received a Treasury Department license to do so.
The question of whether to deal directly with Iran has punctuated the U.S. presidential campaign.
Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee, has criticized the Bush administration's penchant for not talking to U.S. enemies, and has indicated that he'd hold direct talks, even with Ahmadinejad.
Republican nominee Sen. John McCain has ridiculed Obama and his foreign policy as naive.
Yet in his waning days in office, President Bush has authorized a more direct approach to Iran, sending Undersecretary of State William Burns to participate in six-nation nuclear talks with Iranian representatives in Geneva in July.
The senior administration officials said the plan to open an interests section in the Iranian capital isn't a move to closer government-to-government ties.
Rather, they say, it is an effort to reach out to the Iranian people, many of whom are far less anti-American than their leaders are.
Among other things, the U.S. diplomats in Tehran would facilitate cultural exchanges; issue visas for Iranians to travel to the U.S.; and engage in public diplomacy to present a more charitable view of the U.S.
The U.S. and Iran don't have formal diplomatic relations, which were broken by President Jimmy Carter in April 1980, following the November 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by Iranian students.
U.S. interests in Iran are looked after by the Swiss. Iran has a small interests section in Washington under Pakistan's embassy, but it doesn't include any Iranian diplomats.
That could change if Iran insists on reciprocity as the price for establishing a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Tehran, which the senior officials said they predict it will do.
Ahmadinejad, in a late September interview with The New York Times, said of the U.S. interests section idea: "I have announced before that we will look at (it) with a positive frame of mind."
Ahmadinejad doesn't have the final say in national security matters in Iran, however. The country's religious leaders do. Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said in New York in July that Iran would insist on a quid pro quo for permitting a U.S. interests section: approval of its standing request for direct flights between Tehran and New York.
Other Iranian officials have been cooler to the idea.
While some senior officials said Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice haven't made a final decision, they and others indicated that the mid-November announcement is a near-certainty.
For a model, Bush administration officials point to the U.S. interests section in Havana, Cuba, which was opened in 1977. As with Iran, the U.S. and Cuba don't have formal diplomatic ties.
The U.S. government also has been quietly licensing U.S.-based nongovernmental groups to work in Iran, giving them a waiver from Treasury Department sanctions on Iran.
Most of the groups maintain anonymity. However, the American-Iranian Council, which promotes dialogue between the two countries, announced in late September that it had received a Treasury license. Several days later, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hassan Ghashghavi said the group, based in Princeton, N.J., wouldn't be allowed to open an office in Iran.
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